How Do You Stop Teenagers from Becoming Addicted to Video Games?
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How Do You Stop Teenagers from Becoming Addicted to Video Games?


addicted to video gamesLots of people drink; most of them aren’t alcoholics. Similarly, most teenage boys play computer games and very few of them are addicted.

I used to date an Italian girl. She kept a small wine cellar, no more than a dozen bottles. That wine cellar blew me away; I’d never known a house where alcohol was kept. Alcohol wasn’t kept—it was drunk. You opened the first bottle and you kept on drinking until all the alcohol in the house was gone and you passed out or hopped in the car, drove to the nearest bottle shop and bought some more. That’s how it is with we alcoholics: once the cork pops out of the bottle, we’re off and away.

But not her; she’d have one or two glasses of wine with a meal, just as she’d been doing with her family since adolescence. The cork went back in the bottle. She didn’t need to hear that “click” in her head that we alcoholics do, that “click” that’s so perfectly described by Tennessee Williams in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. If you ever want to hear the addicted brain described perfectly, forget about the DSM 5; read or better still, go and watch a performance of the words that Williams puts into the mouth of Big Daddy’s alcoholic son, Brick. When it came to alcoholism, Tennessee Williams knew what he was talking about.  I know all about that click, too. Turns the hot light off and the cool one on, and all of a sudden there’s peace.

It’s those dopamine receptors always wanting more. But not for everyone. For many people, like my Italian ex-girlfriend, alcohol is an occasional pleasure—nothing more. She was never arrested, she never lost a job or a relationship due to her drinking and it never threatened her health or her liberty. It’s the same with teenage boys and computer games; for most of them, it’s going to be an occasional pleasure that barely touches their lives. But for some, it’s going to be different; those negatives are going to start piling up the way they do for alcoholics. These boys are going to isolate and when you try to take the console from them, they will become livid, accusing you of not understanding or telling you lies about the extent of their usage because a love for the truth is one of the first things that leaves the addict. They will become preoccupied and even when they’re not using, getting back to the game will become their obsession. In place of attending family meals, having regular study time or even sleeping, they’ll be making excuses to start using again. In fact, a lack of sleep is one of the key markers of addicted behavior in teens as they stay awake all night using instead of getting the solid 9-10 hours that their developing teenage brains need.

So if your teenage boy is getting a bit of down time killing zombies online or saving the world in Call of Duty, don’t be too concerned. It’s perfectly normal and doesn’t mean they’re addicted. But if they’re isolating, lying, stealing, not sleeping and obsessing about their next fix, then you have a problem. Or, to put it in Alanon terms, they have a problem and you have rules and boundaries and an understanding that the only person’s behavior you can actually control is your own.

Or perhaps there’s no such thing as gaming addiction. I teach teenage boys and they assure me that the condition doesn’t exist; many experts would agree with them. It’s a controversial topic—some people call it an addiction, some people don’t. Besides, it’s a cruel world out there; teenagers are under a lot of pressure and it’s not surprising that so many of them want to disappear into a fictional world when the real one is all too stressful.

But the symptoms are real and so is the distress caused in households where parents long ago lost the battle with their kids over the amount of time spent they spend gaming. The debate over whether or not video game addiction is a thing will no doubt go on for a long time. In the meantime, there are households out there where parents can feel their son slipping away from them, from his schooling, from his friends. And when his parents try to speak to him about it, he becomes defensive, angry and even violent.

Why boys? Well, for one thing, I used to be a teenage boy and I know how self-destructive we can be, how easily led, how easy it is to turn us into child soldiers or cub scouts depending on who is around when we’re growing up. When boys become teenagers, we’re desperately looking for validation, for a world where we can fit in and if that world comes with bright lights, automatic rifles and plenty of zombies to kill, then all the better. We’re drawn to violence and gore at that age and video games provide that to us in a compelling package. But we grow out of it—or we should. And if we don’t, well, you stop maturing at the age the addiction kicks in and if you don’t get sober, you don’t mature. You stay trapped as a permanent adolescent; one of Peter Pan’s lost boys.

How do you bring them back? It’s not easy. Addictions can be cruel and ultimately, they have to want to come back. Part of controlling your own but behavior is setting rules, boundaries and consequences for your house. Keep the computer, TV and other electronic equipment in a shared part of the house like the kitchen or the living room because the bedroom is for sleep—not for TV or computer games. Treat computer gaming like it’s a treat and like other rewards, it needs to be earned. Agree on free time, as opposed to time spent on homework or chores and in some of that free time, fit in family activities like old school board games, community fun runs, fishing surfing, reading or whatever you like. And finally, part of any addictive behavior is a retreat from the world because of a lack of confidence, a feeling that you don’t fit in. So encourage your son to find his place in the world; boys respond well to praise. And remember that the only real currency you have with your son is the time you spend with him.

Some of that time can, and should, be spent playing computer games with him. Why not demystify them and not make him feel that he’s doing something bad every time he goes online or to the console? And then, be grateful you don’t live in South Korea (unless, of course, you do).

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