Is My Kid a Video Game Junkie?


So your child REALLY likes video games. So if left alone, they would play 3, 4, 5 or more hours non-stop. So they resist your attempts to limit their time playing these games or sneak in extra time whenever possible. So you catch them lying or staying up late to play more and being irritable, angry or stuck in a moping mood when not able to play.

At what point do you wonder if this is normal or if it seems more like the signs of a video game junkie?

Part 1: Is Gaming Addiction Real?

A 2008 study from Stanford School of Medicine on video/on-line game playing and the brain found that male participants (more so than female participants) showed activation in the region of the brain associated with reward and addiction. Even many gamers will admit this. In fact according to a survey of over 40,000 gamers "about 50% of MMORPG (Massive-Multi-player Online Role Play Game) players would consider themselves addicted to the game."

In my experience, most gamers will at least admit that they have a few concerns but they just don't think it's that big of a deal.

Part 2: Does My Child Have A Problem?

Don't get hung up on the word 'addiction'. Is it a problem? Is it interfering with the development of other skills such as developing strong relationship skills, good health habits, academic success and personal growth? Can they handle limiting gaming? Are they learning to manage their emotions well? Are they excessively irritable to be around? (oh wait - that's just adolescents in general 🙂

Consider the following National Institute on Media and the Family's Video Game Addiction Checklist:

  • Spends excessive amount of time playing (every day? w/o breaks?)
  • Stays up late gaming and sleeps during odd hours or at school
  • Angry or aggressive when not playing games, or time is restricted*
  • Lies about the amount of time spent playing
  • Lost interest in other activities they once loved (hobbies, sports)
  • Does not complete homework and assignments, drop in grades
  • Spends less time with friends in order to play games (or only spends time when playing games)

*Not to overstate this but if your child isn't able to adjust to rules about cutting back, seems to 'need a fix', or goes into a depression or acts out irrationally/angrily - think withdrawal. Cutting off a child who is addicted cold turkey can have challenging (and in rare cases dire) consequences. Please take this seriously.

Part 3: What Factors Make My Child More Vulnerable?

OK - so there's a multi-billion dollar video game industry enticing our children to play these games, and the game designs themselves (using classic behavioral conditioning) encourage more and more use - but while many children do overdo the amount of time wasted, I mean spent playing video games, not every child has a real problem so what might make YOUR child a more likely candidate? Consider:

Children with self-confidence, anger, attention or obsessiveness issues - These games feed the needs for success, power, adrenaline and quick-changing action. So it makes sense that certain kids will be drawn deeper into this phenomenon than others. Unfortunately the cycle feeds on itself and offers a quick, though temporary, fix for these issues.

Children suffering from depression. Lack of interest in life, irritability, negativity, lethargy may be signs of depression where playing video games just keeps those depressed feelings at bay. But this is a circular issue. Feeling depressed can lead to mindless game-playing. Feeling like you wasted your day and didn't do anything truly engaging can make you feel depressed.

Kids with easy access to games. Seems obvious - but it really is that simple. If these games are unavailable - they can't play them. And yet its complicated because unless you are willing to live in a hut off the grid - most parents are caught trying to manage this activity - and it is just too easy to lose track of it. Either because parents don't see their child's behavior as excessive, aren't consistent in monitoring a child's time, or cave in to the pressure (often because they want their child (son at least) to fit in and have friends and they know that just about every other boy is 'doing it') - it is a predicament for parents everywhere. Plus, even if your rules are strict, whenever your child is somewhere else you don't have control. And if you are strict - guess whose house kids aren't likely to want to come to?

Part 4: How To Deal With Excessive Video Gaming

1. First be honest with yourself. How am I contributing to this problem? Do I allow lots of video gaming because it makes my day easier? Too tired to fight, makes car rides quieter, gives me a break from parenting, no sibling fighting, etc? Own what you get from your child playing video games. And then you have to decide you are taking on this challenge to change the situation.

2. Sit down with your child and discuss this issue. Show them the above addiction signs list and ask them to honestly rate whether they think they have a problem. (Tip: if you don't want your child to be too resistant - don't ram it down their throat.) Be open to noticing any times that your child does not fit this list. Even if you stretch it a bit - like: "Luckily, you do like to read." or "You do enjoy shooting hoops in the driveway." This will help them expand their vision of themselves - which is what you want!

3. Help your child find engagement in other places. Is your child just waiting for life to begin? Video games engage the player, so in order to counter that they need to be engaged - mind, body, emotions - in the Real World. Have your child generate a list of non-screen activities that they like or that are important. Besides encouraging a long list of fun activities like sports and clubs - make sure that they are involved in functional activities in the home, their school, their community, their church: Help dad/mom or a neighbor fix a car, be your techno-wizard, have some power over what you plant in the vegetable garden - and have them help you plant it, or get them out in the world volunteering or raking/shoveling for an elderly neighbor or family member, starting a club, getting a job, etc. These are all valuable and can teach useful life skills. And frankly if they are doing these things - they really don't have much time to play games.

4. Expose them to how differently many children spend their lives. (Consider books, movies, youtube clips, news articles etc.) This sense of perspective is important because if all they see is kids playing video games - they think that is the only option.

5. Shut off the screens. Incorporate game free days for the whole family to be free from screens - including tv screens, your wii, computers, hand-held games, and even phones with their texting - if the whole day is not possible - ban screens for part of the day. Bonus: If you spend that time together, this forced restriction can strengthen your family connection. And practicing going without is an important life skill!

6. Invite your child to see the wasted time of too much gaming. Ask: When you look back a year from now on this day - will you say: man I wish I would have played more video games?

7. Have a clear agreement about when, how long and where games can be played. Consider:

  • A signed contract
  • Limit amount of time - especially with violent games
  • No gaming until... PM
  • Chores/school work comes first

8. Have consequences for not following agreement/contract - And remember you are the parent so this only works if you follow through on them consistently. (Removal of gaming equipment, extra chores, volunteer work, writing an essay on why it is so hard to stick to the rules or about being a person of your word)

Do not engage in negotiations or debates. If you decide there is a way to earn back this privilege, at the time of setting the restriction, you can tell them so, however - do not discuss the conditions immediately. Let them know that after a cool down period you will be willing to discuss this possibility with them. And then implement a cool down period.

Remember, helping your child develop other strengths and become a well-rounded, responsible person is an important job. Your efforts here are well worth it. They are lucky to have you in their corner, even if they don't see that now.

Good luck and good parenting.

P.S. A CAUTIONARY NOTE: If your child is really addicted you are taking away their drug. In rare, extreme cases, this can cause very aggressive or self-harming behavior, depression or oppositional reactions. If you are concerned or if you are struggling to resolve this situation reasonably, I strongly encourage you to seek support.

Annie Zirkel, LPC is a Parenting Consultant, Workshop Presenter and Author based in Ann Arbor, Mi. Contact her at