Sleepless Nights in Cyberland: Parenting in the Electronic Age
In my practice as an ADHD and academic coach, I see many young people who spend little time on homework and studying, but log countless hours playing video games.
Among the kids who make their way to me, excessive video gaming and computer usage accompany poor academic performance more than 80 percent of the time.
17-year-old Connor was performing poorly in school when I met him. He had an IQ of 135 but suffered from ADHD. He was a math wiz who aced calculus without really studying, but hovered close to failure in his other classes. He was always tired and frequently fell asleep during class. He told his mother that he had been going to bed around eleven and waking up around seven.
Eager to solve the mystery of his tiredness, Connor’s mother took him to a sleep clinic. The doctors found nothing wrong. I suspected video games. Connor’s mother did not agree. She knew he liked computer games, but had never seen him playing for long periods. His sleepiness seemed to be the key to his low grades, but we did not know what was keeping him awake at night.
We were in a quandary until Connor made the “mistake” of adding me to his Facebook page, where he frequently bragged about his online exploits. I learned there that he regularly stayed up all night playing World of Warcraft.
Although many cyber activities can be indulged in to excess, video games are among the most pernicious. Compulsive video game playing exhibits the same “signature” in the player’s brain as do other addictions. As far as the brain is concerned, an addictive reward is a reward, regardless of whether it comes from a chemical (alcohol or drugs) or an experience (gambling or video games). It’s hard to predict which children will end up with a gaming addiction, so it is important to educate all young people about the danger.
Early parent-child discussions about the dangers of excessive video gaming go a long way toward preventing full-blown addiction. Parents should speak frankly with their children about the potential destructive consequences of video games, just as they would about drugs or sex.
How is a parent to go about this discussion? As a start, parents could research addiction and share the stories about it they found on the internet or heard from a friend. They should also bring up the topic every so often. The most important thing is that children need to be made aware of the dangers of gaming addiction. Parents have the power to put the right messages into a child’s head at an early age.
If you can’t beat them, join them. My familiarity with the world of video games allows me, a man of 40, to connect with teenagers I work with in ways that would otherwise be impossible. Because video games make up a serious portion of recreational time for today’s youngsters, adults who do not educate themselves about these games will remain clueless about a significant aspect of youth culture.
When youngsters first come to my ADHD study groups, they are astonished that, after they complete a certain amount of work, I will play video games with them. I particularly like Mario Kart, NFL Blitz 2000, and Super Smash Brothers. Four players can play any of these games at one time, and we make it a social event. Sometimes we even have tournaments. I can play at their level, and take the games as seriously as they do. Perhaps I’ll even playfully “talk trash” to other players or protest to the television screen when I swear that I pressed the right button, but my guy didn’t move, which resulted in my premature “death.”
I also play games that I do not particularly like and that I do not play well. This gaming allows my students to teach me. Again, this brings me to their level and increases my credibility as someone they can talk to.
Parents need to foster a situation in which their children will listen. Youngsters are repeatedly lectured to and “schooled” in what is appropriate and what is not, and become experts at tuning out adults. To get a child to listen, getting to their level once in a while is crucial. Entering their video game world presents us with an excellent opportunity.
Find some games that you like, or just sit down and watch your child play. Ask them questions like: What does this button do? Why does my guy keep falling off the cliff? Why did you go down that tunnel? How do you stop yourself from going out of control around those curves?
Be careful not to ask too many questions, however, because your child may get annoyed. You have to cultivate a genuine interest, because children can smell a lack of authenticity, which pushes them away.
I know of no more effective way to bridge the generation gap than through video games. Unfortunately, simply connecting and communicating with your excessive gamer may not be enough to get him or her to limit play time.
When game time becomes excessive-more than an hour or two per day-restrictions must be considered. Obviously, this suggestion is easier made than done. To restrict game time, you may need to commit to tough love because if there’s wiggle room, kids will find it.
Youngsters feel entitled to play video games. It is something to do when they can find nothing more interesting. Once video games are brought into the home, they are at your child’s disposal whenever he or she chooses. For excessive gamers, this easy availability has to change. Video games must be turned into a privilege to be earned, because an excessive video game player invariably neglects responsibilities at home and school.
Obviously, this approach has the potential to teach valuable life lessons. You have to ask yourself what behaviors you want to encourage in your child. If performance in school is the issue, link video game time with good grades. If you think your child needs to be more responsible around the house, link his or her game time with completion of chores.
For one boy whose family came to see me, game time was linked to treating his mother with respect. If he respected his mother on one day (not yelling at her or making snide remarks), he would receive an hour and a half of game time the following day. Interestingly, when this plan worked and parent-child fighting over excessive gaming was eliminated, the relationship between mother and son improved remarkably.
Encourage your child to explore interests other than video games: biking, swimming, martial arts, sports, spending time with friends. If you have a computer-adept child, consider sending him or her to a computer camp. You need to help your child replace the time once spent video gaming with other, more beneficial activities. I recommend physical activity because gaming is sedentary.
There are now some aerobic video games available, which incorporate dance and movement into the game play. You may want to think about making exceptions to the daily game time limit if your child chooses one of these options. You have to work to encourage your child into greater social interaction and physical exertion. Giving game time credit for non-computer activities like biking or sports is encouraged.
One 12-year old young man, Tyler, was hooked on squad level shooting games like Call of Duty. Tyler’s father got him interested in paint ball, which became a bi-weekly father-and-son activity. Tyler did not stop playing video games but, after a few months of paint ball, his father noticed that the boy tired more quickly of them and it became easier to get him off a game.
The father of a discovery-oriented 11-year-old addicted gamer, Alex, started taking his son on adventure bike rides. They joined a group of “urban explorers” who regularly rode through rarely-seen parts of the city of Detroit, like old industrial sections, unused railroad networks and historic districts. Alex loved it. His father bought a GPS which they used to plan rides all through the metro area. Alex’s father found a way to engage the boy’s love of discovery in real-time. He also got him out of the house and much-needed exercise.
Your efforts to curtail your child’s video game time will only be as successful as your efforts to engage his or her passions with real-time activities. Video games and many other electronic devices allow the user to rapidly shift attention. Patience is not needed. To compete with that fact, you need to come up with activities that have a strong measure of intensity.
The world of recreation and entertainment is in the midst of a great electronic shift. Creative parenting is the best way to ensure that this shift enhances your child’s potential instead of destroying it. You’ll have to be creative and you may need to get tough, but if you do nothing, you could be putting your child’s future in jeopardy.
About the Author Kevin Roberts, the Add Guy is a recovering cyber addict who runs support groups to help other cyber addicts who struggle to get their lives back on track. His background is in education, and for the last thirteen years has been an academic coach, helping folks dealing with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder succeed in school and life. A speaker at national educational and ADHD conferences, he is the curriculum writer and developer of EmpowerADD, a sixteen-module program designed to give ADHD individuals the skills they need to succeed. He is the author of Cyber Junkie: Escape the Gaming and Internet Trap (Hazelden, Sept. 2010, 800-328-9000).