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No, your son isn’t ‘addicted’ to gaming?

Calls crescendo from parents concerned that their sons are ‘addicted’ to online games. There are a few weeks that pass where I don’t hear from parents tearing their hair out about their son’s (problematic) gaming behaviours. 

Parents who tell me that their son has punched holes in the all when gaming consoles were peeled from his hands. Parents who tell me that their once effervescent and active son has retreated and his only form of socialisation is now via his gaming console and headphones. Parents who are struggling to get their son to attend school because his gaming infatuation has taken over. And in some cases, parents who are dealing with their son’s urinary and bowel incontinence because he can’t stop playing (yes, they’re soiling themselves rather than terminating a game).

Now there are certainly instances where boys (and girls) would be clinically diagnosed with an Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD), or some problematic behaviours that warrant medical or professional intervention. I’m not denying that this is the case. However, it is not at the epidemic levels it is often reported to be at in the popular media. 

A study published in American Journal of Psychiatry in March 2017 sought to quantify how prolific IGD was and it was found that 0.3 to 1.0 percent of the general population might qualify for a potential diagnosis of IGD. The authors of the study highlighted there’s an important distinction between passionate engagement (someone enthusiastic and focused on gaming and who perhaps struggles to digitally-disconnect) and pathology (someone with an illness/addiction where their gaming behaviours cause significant impairment or distress). The levels of distress and impairment due to gaming may assist in distinguishing the two descriptions. 

We need to be careful about using the word ‘addiction’ when describing most boys’ digital behaviours. There’s much speculation, even amongst psychologists, researchers and professionals in the field as to if IGD is a legitimate medical condition and if it is, what reliable and valid diagnostic criteria could apply. However, for most boys, they’ve developed a digital dependence or a digital obsession- not an ‘addiction’. We might say that they’ve formed unhealthy digital habits or unsustainable digital behaviours. An addiction involves a lack of control despite adverse consequences. This isn’t the reality for most boys who are gaming.

Now, this may sound like semantics, but it’s not. We have to be very careful about using such charged and emotional vocabulary. The word ‘addiction’ is a very emotionally-laden word and implies that we have little control over the situation.

Again, I’m not dismissing or denying the intense challenges that parents of boys (and girls) who are legitimately addicted to their gaming consoles. I understand the myriad of challenges they face. However, if we label problematic or passionate engagement as an addiction then we may bypass the opportunity to change behaviour.

Not all gaming is created equal… and it’s not all ‘bad’

I want to point out that gaming isn’t taboo and all doom-and-gloom. I think we get caught up in the moral panic and media headlines that suggest that unhealthy gaming is at epidemic levels and impacts all users. That’s simply not the case. There are positive, educational and prosocial games that can have positive benefits.

Researchers and educators are keen to understand the psychological appeal and captivating potential that gaming offers users. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if educators and technology developers could use gaming as an educational tool? Many schools are starting to explore with games-based learning. I’ve been involved in several research studies exploring the potential of games in educational settings and the findings have been impressive. Engagement levels and performance in schools might look very different if we leveraged the benefits that gaming can pose.

We also need to have broader conversations around gaming. A study conducted at Oxford by Dr Andrew Przybylski found that playing about one hour of games per day enhanced users’ psychological wellbeing, while playing over three hours per day, was correlated with less wellbeing. This study highlights that we need to have more nuanced conversations about ‘gaming’ by exploring not only what types of games are being played, but also consider how many hours are spent gaming and the different times of the day- as these all shape the impact gaming can potentially have on users. 

Why is gaming so appealing to boys?

// Socialisation- gaming is a legitimate way for our boys to socially connect. As humans, we’re hard-wired for social connection. Gaming is a platform where boys get to interact with their peer group, or with other boys (and girls) who share common interests. This need can be amplified, especially for boys with additional social or emotional needs who would find face-to-face interactions somewhat more challenging.  

// Testosterone- depending on the types of games boys are playing, some gaming pursuits can give boys hits of testosterone. First-person shooter games, violent games where players are rewarded for enagaging in anti-social or aggressive games (in my Parent Seminars I often show screen shots of popular games that boys are playing where they are rewarded for raping a woman), or games where they have to execute a plan and see the fruits of their efforts will drive their testosterone levels.

// Dopamine- for most boys gaming is a pleasurable activity so their brains are releasing hits of dopamine (the pleasure neurotransmitter). Whilst studies haven’t yet quantified how much dopamine would be released, what we do know, is that dopamine hijacks the logical part of the brain. Dopamine overrides the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is the logical part of the brain and the part of the brain that helps with self-regulation. Basically, when our boys game the dopamine floods their frontal lobe and impairs their ability to self-regulate. This is why your son looks at you with his puppy-dog eyes and pleads for you not to put away his gaming console.

// Adrenaline- rapid-fire, fast-paced action games, where boys can assume an active role, can build a sense of anticipation and raise adrenaline levels. This impact is likely to increase over time as gaming graphics and programming become much more sophisticated and the adoption of virtual reality headsets become more widespread.

// Competency- Gaming allows boys to ‘do’ and achieve, catering for their biological drivers to be hunters, conquerors and fighters. Gaming meets this basic psychological need for boys.  This is why the possibly experience more excitement when they play video games, as compared to girls. Gaming gives boys a tangible sense of achievement, as the gaming metrics can tangibly measure their success- they know how many Fortnite battles they’ve won, or what level they’re on in the game, or how many victims they’ve killed. Game designers use metrics and are clever at incrementally challenging gamers so that the challenges they face in the game are proportional to their current skill level. Sadly, many boys report that when they game it’s the only time they feel good and are told they’re competent throughout the day.

// Challenge- games provide incremental challenges which keeps users hooked on the platform. It’s sometimes referred to as the ‘Goldilocks principle’ : just-the-right-level of difficulty so it’s not too easy  and not too hard. For those of you who’ve studied psychology, this is the ‘zone of proximal development’. Gamers are challenged in such a way that they want to persevere, yet not presented with tasks or activities that are beyond their current capabilities.  So gamers have a real sense of accomplishment once a task or outcome is achieved.

// The bottomless pit- gaming prompts boys (in fact many of us when we use technology) to enter the ‘state of insufficiency’. Boys never feel ‘done’ or ‘complete’  when they game because there’s always another battle, or game, or level to reach. Multiplayer games compound this issue as boys feel obliged not to let their mates down by leaving a game. There’s a sense of obligation and comradery.

// Control- one of our fundamental psychological needs, according to needs theory, is the need for control. As humans, we like to feel like we have autonomy. Gaming is one of the few times of the day where our sons feel like they have some locus of control over their lives. They get to plan their missions, craft things in Minecraft, they can make (impulsive) decisions, take risks…and often do all of this without a teacher looking over their shoulder, or a parent supervising their activity. (Our boys used to have ample time to engage in these behaviours when they played unsupervised after school… something that doesn’t occur as much today because of a host of reasons- over-scheduled childhoods, risk-averse parenting, extra school demands).

// The brain at night– at night, when any boys game, their limbic brain fires up. This is their emotional brain. At the same time, their prefrontal cortex switches off, which is the part of the brain responsible for logical decision making and impulse control. So at night time, or at times when they’re tired, boys can become increasingly emotional (queue the angry, aggressive, frustrated, violent behavior when we unplug them) when we terminate their gaming.

// Escapism- some boys use gaming as an avoidance strategy or to bypass other psychological issues or unmet psychological needs. Research confirms that there’s an association between people suffering Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD) symptoms and the presentation of other psychological disorders. Studies are beginning to address the comorbidity between IGD and depression and anxiety symptoms and other mental health issues. This doesn’t mean that gaming causes mental health issues, it simply proves correlation. It’s not yet clear if boys with existing mental health issues gravitate towards online gaming to help them cope with their psychological issues. In this sense, gaming may meet the psychological needs that other areas of their life are simply not satiating.

As parents, we can take two paths. The first path involves us tossing our arms in the air and declaring that this is all too hard and continuing with the endless battles with our son and his gaming behaviours. We can continue with the daily battles to get him to switch off. We can continue to threaten to ban the console, or give it away, or even sleep with it in our bed (as I’ve heard many parents tell me they do). 

The second path empowers us to take an active role. We can stop, draw breath and look for ways to help him foster healthier and more sustainable gaming habits. We can learn more about what’s driving his gaming habits and better appreciate some of the impacts on his brain and body, so we can help him digitally-disconnect…without tears and tantrums.

I want to help you do the latter. I want to arm you with research-based, yet relevant information about our boys’ gaming habits (what’s fuelling them) and how we can empower them to game in positive and healthy ways.  That’s why I’m offering a webinar called ‘Tech & Testosterone: why boys find the online world appealing & how we can help them develop healthy tech habits’. ‘ I’ll debunk the myths and arm you with science-backed solutions to help your son develop healthy gaming habits (without suggesting that you ban the console). 

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I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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