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.