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How to treat your child’s video game addiction before it’s too late

“Let me just finish this level!” How many times have you heard this when asking your child to pause a video game? Video games can be a fun, engaging way for your kid to pass the time. They can help sharpen problem-solving skills, and more and more games are being marketed as educational. However, playing video games too often can cause issues. Extreme video game usage can affect a child in many ways, physically and mentally, and it can eventually turn into a child video game addiction.

teens having fun playing video games
Pixel Shot/Shutterstock

Spending too much time in front of screens, including video games, can have real physical impacts including:

  • obesity
  • eye strain
  • insomnia or disruptive sleep patterns
  • back, neck, and wrist pain

An excess of screen time has been linked to mental health issues including anxiety and depression. Some people argue that frequent video gamers may also suffer from inadequate social skills as well as behavior issues. These issues can range from inattentiveness to impulsiveness.

When does it become an addiction?

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, addiction is a “treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences.”  When the desire or need to engage in video games becomes compulsive or starts causing harmful outcomes, the gaming could be classified as an addiction.

Playing video games can create a dopamine release in the brain. The more your child’s brain experiences dopamine, the more your kid may seek that feeling. Unfortunately, over time, the brain can get used to this dopamine release and may start to require more time engaging in an activity before the brain experiences the feelings of dopamine. This can cause your child to need to play more and more video games because his or her brain is seeking that dopamine feeling.

Dangers of child video game addiction

One of the greatest concerns for parents is video game addiction. According to Fiona Swanson, a clinical social worker in Psychiatry and Psychology in Mankato, Minnesota, video games can cause a gamer’s brain to process the video game as if the scenario were a real situation. She states, “If the game depicts a dangerous or violent situation, the gamers’ bodies react accordingly. Their fight-or-flight response to that perceived danger is triggered by exposure to intense stimulation and violence in the game.”

When this trigger in the brain becomes frequent from increased video game usage, your kid’s brain can experience hyperarousal. Although each person may have different side effects, hyperarousal can lead to:

  • difficulty managing emotions
  • inattentiveness
  • low frustration tolerance
  • impulsiveness
  • difficulty following directions
  • lack of empathy
  • increased violence

Swanson also cautions against the physical side effects of chronic hyperarousal. Frequent hyperarousal can cause irritability, depression, unstable blood sugar levels, decreased immunity, and jittery feelings.

How to know if your kid has a video game addiction

Determining whether or not your child’s love of video games is a highly preferred activity or an actual video game addiction can be challenging. If you are concerned your kid is becoming addicted to video games, monitor their behavior and usage. Some behaviors to look out for are:

  • spending more time with video games than interacting with peers or other fun activities
  • having an extreme urge to play video games
  • being unable to concentrate because of a desire to play games
  • feeling unable to stop playing video games, even if you notice it interfering with other aspects of life (school, homework, family life)
  • underreporting how much time is being spent playing video games
  • becoming angry or irritable when asked or forced to stop playing video games
  • neglecting personal hygiene, including showering

Ultimately, you know your kid best, and if you have concerns your child is addicted to video games, you should reach out and get help.

What to do if you suspect your child has a video game addiction

Before accusing your kid of having a video game addiction, you should spend time determining if they truly are addicted to video games, or if they just play more video games than you prefer. Consider taking data and tracking how often your child plays video games.

Take notes on any changes in behaviors you have noticed. For example, have they stopped hanging out with friends as much, or are their grades slipping? Have a clear idea of what changes you have noticed and what concerns you have.

When you are ready, talk to your child about their video game addiction. Avoid threatening to take away their video games for an extended period of time. Instead, focus on what you have noticed and what concerns you have.

See if you can convince your kid to get on board with an action plan. Consider:

  • setting video game time limits per day or per week
  • setting specific days and times for gaming
  • moving gaming consoles into shared family spaces
  • creating a list of alternative activities
  • replacing normal video game times with new family activities

If these strategies do not work, or you feel like your child’s video game addiction is extreme, consider seeking professional help. Reach out to your child’s pediatrician or consider seeking out a mental health professional to treat your child’s video game addiction.

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