The Video Game Debate

I have had several inquiries about computer game addiction, usually after I’ve spoken on how to talk to teens about difficult topics such as drug and alcohol use. I have to say I find this a particularly challenging topic. Anyone who knows me, or has heard me speak, will know that I am informed by years of experience working with families, my own experience as a dad, and most importantly research. But this last one is tough. There is as much positive as negative research out there on gaming. Putting these two "addictions" in the same conversation is problematic, as the use of drugs and/or alcohol is rarely (if ever) positive, whereas there are some very real positive outcomes to extended computer game use.


Notice I used "extended". There is a much broader range of what parents feel is too much use, and what constitutes true addiction when it comes to gaming. Addiction is the narrowing of one's life to a singular focus - when everything that someone does either supports or justifies "use", then we're talking about addiction. If someone does a lot of something (more than you'd like) but they're essentially functioning in most or all other areas of their life, then this defines extended use.


Are they failing/skipping school without any concern simply to play video games? Are they staying up until significantly late (4am) and therefore cannot get up the next day to go to school, and when they wake they are engaging almost immediately to play again? That's an addiction.


Are they spending all of their down-time playing? Could they be spending their time playing soccer, going out with friends, watching a movie, doing extra chores, but instead they play video games? Do they organize their game time to coordinate/coincide with other friends or players? Do they engage in a social group who also play the same games, and do they focus the majority of their time together playing or talking about the game? That's extended play.


As stated there's some funny research out there about extended computer game use, and the resulting effects... some which include higher general IQs, better problem solving ability, and an increase to the ability to attend to multiple stimuli. This TED talk in particular is looking at how business and other industries are leveraging the next generation's interest in video games, and their resulting skill set.


That’s probably the biggest difference. I don’t think anyone would see extended use of alcohol or drugs as leading to a unique skill set. But this is the real tension. Many parents simply do not see or appreciate the ‘value’ of video gaming, while many other parts of society and our culture do. And this tension gets in the way of our ability as parents to truly influence behavior, because our values are so different from our teens’.


I am not suggesting parents don't have the right to set limits on their kids' computer use. These things are value based, and no one individual's values are better than another's. I try very hard not to tell or direct parents as to what their values should be; whether it’s what the best curfew time is, at what age is sexual activity ok, should any alcohol use be tolerated for a youth under 19, should teens be allowed to swear, etc. These are values that should ONLY be set by a parent, not by a professional, and if they're set with true authenticity (you play by the same rules) then they are the right values and expectations to uphold.


I'm simply pointing out the challenge is exacerbated by our current culture's acceptance of this behavior. And when we try to set boundaries or expectations that go against our culture's current status quo, particularly with teens, we run the risk of being totally dismissed and having seemingly no influence at all without true conflict. My suggestion is to re-engage with your teen in order to start to bring your influence in which is clearly based on quite different values, which is ok. My philosophy is that its always better to maintain a connection with our kids, even if it means tolerating different values, than it is to stick to our guns so strongly that we have no connection.


Get interested in what they're dong. Not because you want to criticize it, or monitor it, but because you're interested in learning about what makes your child tick; what they like, why, and what they do. Get them to explain it to you. Maybe even ask if you can watch for a very short amount of time while they describe what they're doing. Once you've gained their trust that you're not there to take it away, or criticize, engage in conversation about how best to manage their time. That way, you will be giving a message that gaming is important, and they should protect the right time to play, and also protect other times for other things… like dinner with you.

Who's Cell Phone Is It Anyway?

Panopticon – an “inspection house” or a prison design in which all inmates can be watched from a single point without the inmates knowing whether or not they are currently being watched. The intended effect is that in order not to be in violation of the rules, the inmates must act as though they are being watched at all times.

Cell Phone – the same thing (if you’re a teenager).

Now, while you may disagree with this parallel, what many families describe is in fact this scenario. That is, the parent states that they pay for the cell phone and have given it to their teenager to ensure their safety, and in return expect an increase in the communication between them and their teen. Basically they want periodic check-ins; usually at the immediate behest of the parent. However, while most teenagers say “yeah, yeah” to these expectations, they do so in the same manner and with the same distain that most of us ‘agree’ to those annoying legal terms of usage on the majority of our smart phone apps.

And here is the discrepancy between what you and your teenager see as both the purpose of the phone and who has ownership. Whatever your teenager is saying to you, you must believe they do not see it as your phone, any more than they see the underwear they are wearing as your underwear. Just because you paid for it doesn’t make it yours. And this concept of ownership extends to the conditions and purpose of usage. The conditions and purpose of usage of most things is determined by who in practicality owns them, where possession is 9/10th’s of the law.

A teenager sees the primary purpose of a cell phone as a necessary tool to stay current, up to date, and relevant within their chosen – and desired – peer group. This is done by direct communication, group communication, sideline communication, and browsing and commenting on trends. It is not done by communication with parents. For many teens, without this tool they are simply not relevant. To the extreme, they panic over missing out and the phone allows them not to miss a thing (it’s actually the ease at which info is shared that causes the panic, but that’s another topic). The majority of teens do NOT see the phone as a safety tool, or a life line to their parents which they can use to access your wisdom and support when faced with challenging decisions.

So what’s the remedy for parents who are fighting with their teens about their cell phone use? Should they reasonably expect compliance that the teen answer whenever they call? Even just to ‘check in’? And by extension, should the parent have the right to confiscate the phone if it is not used primarily for this purpose?  The answer starts with an honest and appreciative review of both party’s needs and wants with respect to the phone. Consider what it was like, as an adult with your young child in tow, talking with a colleague or sales clerk just to have your child interrupt with, “momma? Momma? Momma!?” Is it possible they are experiencing the same feelings when their phone rings while engaged with a group of their peers?

So what is truly at issue is whether or not they are respecting your expectations of informing you where they are, and when they’ll be home. And this is where the discussion needs to lie. If this is why you plan to get them a phone, don’t. It’s a set up for both of you. Getting them a phone is a great way to celebrate that they are a responsible young person capable of handling the responsibility of (age appropriately) using a phone.  And if you take their phone away for not checking in, they’re not learning about time management, respectful communication, or empathy; all skills that are necessary to navigate successful relationships.

And that last point is the real key. If you are simply trying to get compliance on your rules for the phone that you pay for, there is no modelling of respectful communication or empathy. Start with knowing who they are (rather than who you currently want them to be), and then build expectations together that do not violate or directly conflict with their needs (and situational reality), while still meeting your expectations. And a hint; you have to trust them in order for them to learn these important skills. If you’re giving them a phone because you don’t trust them, trust me. They know you don’t. And the remedy to building trust between you and your teen is never through threat of sanction. 

Letting Go of Control

Watching your toddler have a meltdown in the grocery store, your eight year old get reprimanded by his soccer coach for goofing around on the field, or your early teen completely ignore your request to put their crap away is enough to trigger the most seasoned and dedicated parent. We feel embarrassed and frustrated. Where did they learn such values? Not from us surely! Its time they learned how to behave properly, and we start to scan our minds for the best consequence to convince them to abandon their ridiculous plan and comply with what’s expected of them.  And into the power struggle we wade…

At the heart of the matter is the concept of control. We often act at these moments as though we can control our kids’ behavior. Clearly they can’t seem to control their own behavior or they wouldn’t be doing this! But in fact this is precisely what they are doing. They are choosing to behave in response to their perception of events in a manner that they believe will meet their immediate needs. The same way all of us behave essentially, but with a more limited appreciation of all of their options (more on this in a minute). So, if we take a stance that feels to them like we are trying to control their behavior, which we are, then they are likely to fight back and dig in to maintain a sense of control.

Effective parenting over the long haul requires a different way at looking at your primary role as a parent. Too often we see our role as ensuring our children behave in a certain way. Yet, if this is the primary method of interaction during these times at best we will produce little robots waiting for their next instruction, or at worst rebellious anarchists ready to refute whatever the establishment decrees as an expectation. Sound familiar? Children who can’t seem to make a decision or move without our approval or direction? Or a young person who seems to do exactly the opposite of what we ask?

Hey, you’re not alone. Not by a long shot. But just because its not uncommon to experience this parent-child dynamic doesn’t mean it has to be expected or even tolerated. You can do something different. And that starts with a fundamental change to how we understand the primary role of a parent. Is our role to produce well behaved children? (I know… so tempting to say yes to this!)  Or is our role to help create self-reliant and autonomous young people with the ability to regulate their emotions, and make good decisions (problem solve). I’m going with the latter. Its my job to teach my kids how to make decisions, not simply do what I tell them to do. And you can’t teach decision making and self-regulation through coercion; you’re simply teaching how to be compliant.

So back to control. If I can’t control my kids’ behavior, what can I do? I can influence them. Think this is the same? Its not. If I control, then I expect MY outcome. If I influence, I expect them to incorporate my perspective with theirs and hope they adjust in a way that supports both.

And remember I mentioned that I realize they have a limited understanding and appreciation of their options? Well, what we know now about brain development is that the best way to develop this skill is to USE it. That is, they have to be given (age appropriate) experiences to try and think their way out of challenges, rather than simply be told what to do all of the time. Like any new skill they will initially be not great at it, make mistakes, and need help. But with experience they will begin to make better choices. On their own. And that is a great thing to witness.