Watching your child play video games all day and neglecting other parts of life is a painful sight. So let’s learn about how to break a child’s video game addiction.
Parents often say that it does not make sense why their child would want to play video games for over 8 hours a day rather than go outside and play with their friends. Understanding the problem is the first step to solving it. Good diagnosis precedes good treatment. Let’s try to understand what role video games play in your child’s life.
How do Video Games Affect a Child’s Brain?
Video games affect a child’s brain in several ways. Not all of them are bad.
- A systematic review of several studies found that gamers demonstrated an above-average ability to focus their attention on
- A specific stimulus intensely (selective attention)
- On multiple stimuli at the same time (divided attention)
- On one stimulus over a long period, even if there are other distracting stimuli present.
- According to a study, both long-term gamers and those exposed to video games experimentally over a training period showed a structural increase in volume in the regions of the brain responsible for visuospatial skills.
- Another study suggested that compared to non-gamers, gamers show lesser recruitment of the part of the brain responsible for attention, possibly because their attentional resources have been optimized by playing video games.
- Dopamine is the neurotransmitter in our brain that regulates our experience of pleasure. Video games are designed to make our brain release a constant stream of dopamine, with random bursts. However, over time, our brain gets used to this continuous supply, and it requires more and more to feel equally stimulated. When a gamer needs to play more and more to have fun, they are probably addicted to dopamine.
- Our minds have a built-in psychological pattern that makes us feel good when we overcome a challenge. It is called the Triumph circuit. Video games hack this circuit — they present our brain with an obstacle, followed by a reward for clearing that obstacle. However, it can become easy to tap into this circuit with video games. That is one of the reasons a gaming addict may not be motivated to achieve their goals in real life — they get their sense of triumph from video games.
- When a child gets bullied at school, they can turn to video games. One of the reasons for that is that video games are very good at suppressing negative emotions. If a child feels ashamed because they got bullied, or guilty because they did not get good grades, they can turn on a video game and make those negative emotions go away. When a child does not have the right tools to deal with those negative emotions, video games become the coping mechanism to suppress them, which is not healthy.
Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Alok Kanojia explains how video games affect your child’s brain in this video:
Signs Your Child is Addicted to Videogames
The simple answer is: if it causes a problem, it is a problem. Your child could be addicted to video games if their gaming habit affects their:
- Physical health
- Mental health
When your child plays video games, do they become someone else? Do they get irritable or moody? Do they become completely disrespectful?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, your child might be addicted to video games.
Video game addiction can be recognized by:
- Preoccupation with video games
- Being unable to stop
- Being unable to cut back
- Staying up late to play video games
- Gaming affecting other areas of your child’s life
To read more about the signs of video game addiction, click here.
How Many Hours a Day is Video Game Addiction?
That differs from child to child. There is a massive difference between a 12-year-old, a 15-year-old, a 17-year-old, and a 20-year-old. Some children can play video games recreationally for several hours and still maintain excellent performance in school. They also engage in sports and other physical activities and spend time with their parents. A gaming habit is not doomed to turn into a video game addiction.
However, if you find that your child is scoring poorly in school, not engaging in physical activity, compromising on their sleep, and playing video games for 8-12 hours a day, then their gaming habit is problematic.
Different gaming patterns work for different children. Some children don’t play video games during the week and then play for 4-8 hours during the weekend, which allows them to focus on school as well as enjoy video games in long bursts.
Dr. Alok Kanojia’s recommendations for limiting your child’s gaming:
For other children, a pattern of playing an hour or two every day might be more sustainable. Of course, that is if they can keep up with their schoolwork and maintain their physical health.
How long your child plays also depends on what games they play. Some games such as the Civilization series and other games of the strategy genre can go on for hours — progression in those games is quite slow, so your child might want to play those games for longer hours. Other games such as Fortnite, Dota 2, and League of Legends don’t last for as long — an average match usually lasts for 35-50 minutes.
At the end of the day, how long your child plays should not be the only measurement of whether they are addicted to video games. Considering other aspects of their life, such as academic performance, physical health, and mental health, will paint a much more accurate picture.
How to Get Your Child to Stop Playing Video Games
One of the biggest obstacles that parents run into when trying to get their child to stop playing video games is when they say, “No gaming for a week. Read this book instead” or something along those lines.
Nobody in that relationship understands that the child cannot enjoy and engage with that book — they just don’t have the capacity to do that, not in the way that we do.
As a parent, you have to understand that when you give your child a small alternative to gaming, they will not be able to enjoy it. You have to pull them away from video games in a significant manner to get them to have a healthy dopamine-functioning brain.
The good news is that you don’t need to shut down their gaming habit completely. It is enough to engage your child in a way that they find enjoyable.
For example, some people go whitewater rafting for a vacation. Whitewater rafting is a high adrenaline activity and that is why gamers tend to love it. It gives their brain a similar dopamine response as gaming. It is engaging, healthy, and something you can do as a family.
To break a child’s video game addiction, you need to give them a hard but engaging task. That is due to how video games affect the triumph circuit in our minds. Triumph requires adversity, so your child will be the most responsive to activities that are challenging, yet fun.
Dr. Kanojia talks about the problems parents face when trying to regulate their child’s gaming habit:
How to Break a Child’s Video Game Addiction
The first step a parent should take is to disarm their child by talking to them. When you speak to your child about their gaming habit, the first thing that will pop into their mind is that you will take away their video games.
That thought will make them defensive, and anything they say will come from the mindset of “them + their video games vs. you.”
Therefore, you need to get on their team. Try to explain to your child, “I want to talk to you. I’m not saying that we’re going to make any changes. First, just help me understand.”
After having this conversation, you need to set reasonable expectations. You could say, “I know that you love playing Fortnite because you feel amazing when you win the match. I think it’s awesome for you to win, and I want you to keep feeling amazing. I’m just wondering if, in addition to Fortnite, is there something else that could help you feel that way? I know you love Fortnite,
but I think your grades are kind of unacceptable. I know you are capable of getting more than Cs, and so, if your grades don’t improve, then we’re gonna have to stop playing Fortnite.”
The most important thing when trying to help your child gain control of their gaming habit is to communicate to them that you care and that you are on their team. Take an active role in helping them understand what video games do for them. Help them realize how other activities can be just as engaging. That is one of the best answers to how to break a child’s video game addiction.
Click here to learn some actionable video game addiction treatment strategies.
Building a healthy relationship with your child is key to helping them break their video game addiction. If you can get on the same team as them, and understand what role video games play in their life and why their gaming habit can be problematic, then they will be much more receptive to what you have to say.
Your child doesn’t need to quit gaming to gain control of their life. It is enough to address why your child turns to video games. That will allow them to enjoy gaming recreationally and not depend on it to fulfill a need.
If you feel that your gaming habit is affecting your life, we can help. Sign up to work with a HealthyGamer Coach, trained by Dr. Alok Kanojia himself. HealthyGamer Coaches are gamers who have taken control of their life, and know exactly what you’re going through.
If you’re a parent seeking help with your child’s video game addiction, check out our Family Programs.