Does My Son Have A Gaming Addiction?

Dear Mamas,

My son was a good student in elementary school, and a lackluster one in middle school. He finished out this past year with all C’s in his academic classes, while he received A’s and a B on his comprehensive exit exams in those subjects. So I see his ability outstrips his actual performance. His scores on standardized tests have been lower too. He is not interested in anything but computer games. He is finally participating in a sport this summer, but only because we parents insist. We have a good relationship with lines of communication open, as much as they can be with a teen shutting us out often. Do you have any suggestions as to how to help him care about learning? I wouldn’t even mind the bad grades if I saw that he cared! Is it possible that he has a gaming addiction and we are in denial?

Dear Worried,

You don’t tell me how old your son is or for how many hours per day he is playing computer/video games. Your concern seems grounded primarily with his grades. It’s hard to tell which came first – the gaming preoccupation or the problems at school.

It’s also unclear whether other factors have contributed to the changes you have seen in him. For example, have there been significant changes or problems in the family as a whole? Divorce or separation? Financial pressures? A move? The loss of a close friend or family member? Difficulties with teachers or classmates? These are all things that can cause significant problems for your son and should be looked at, too.

But since you seem to think the school and computer issues are connected, we will focus there. Gaming addiction is a real problem for some children (and adults) worldwide and given the information you shared, I think you may have good reason to be concerned about your son’s involvement.

According to research done by Douglas Gentile of Iowa State University in 2009, approximately 8.5% of U.S. kids between the ages of 8 and 18 who play video games are addicted. That works out to be roughly 3 million kids in this country alone! He also found that boys were four times as likely as girls to have what he calls a “pathological” problem.

It’s not that computer games in and of themselves are bad, he says, it’s that some kids begin to use them in an unbalanced way that ends up causing problems for them in other areas of their lives.

It’s not hard to see the appeal of these games – they are exciting and intriguing and allow young players to gain a sense of mastery and control that they don’t experience too much in their real lives. They can connect with other players- but anonymously- and without having to worry about how they look or what to say. Perfect for an awkward teenager.

The games that seem to cause the most problems are the MMORPG’s (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games). These games literally have no end – and require players to work in groups at scheduled times for sessions that can last hours.

But how can you tell if your son truly has a problem or not? Gentile’s list of symptoms included: spending increasing amounts of time and money on video games to feel the same level of excitement; irritability or restlessness when play is scaled back; escaping problems through play; skipping chores or homework to spend more time at the controller; lying about the length of playing time; and stealing games or money to play more.

If a gamer reported at least six of these symptoms, he was classified as pathological or addicted.

The website has put together their own list of symptoms that they say can indicate trouble. Only three of these are needed to flag a problem:

  • Preoccupation
    Someone who is addicted to computer, video, or Internet gaming often exhibits an unusual preoccupation with the game or computer when he is away from it. The teen could seem distracted, irritable, or disinterested and may talk about the game almost constantly.
  • Downplaying Computer Use
    It’s common for someone with addictive, computer-related behaviors to downplay the amount of time she spends in front of the TV or computer. The person may make excuses, saying she “needs” to be online, or may outright lie.
  • Lack of Control
    A person who is addicted, or at risk of becoming addicted to gaming, is unable to control the amount of time she spends on the computer. She may go online with the intent to spend 15 or 20 minutes, but will keep extending the time until several hours have passed.
  • Loss of Time
    Along the same lines, a person may sit down at his computer, again with the intent to spend only a few minutes, but completely lose track of time and suddenly find that several hours have passed. It is not unusual for someone with a gaming addiction to play through the night and only realize how much time has passed when the sun begins to rise.
  • Negative Impact on Other Areas of Life
    Because the person spends so much time on the computer or video game console, other areas of life are neglected. He may grow distant from friends and family who had previously been close. Homework may go unfinished, causing grades to slip. In more extreme cases, the teen may even neglect personal hygiene, choosing to play video games rather than taking a shower.
  • Hiding From Negative or Uncomfortable Feelings or Situations
    Some people become addicted to gaming because they use it to self-medicate. When confronted with situations or feelings that are uncomfortable (feeling sad, arguing with a friend, or getting a bad grade), the person may “hide” in the game as a method of avoidance.
  • Defensiveness
    When confronted or asked about his time spent gaming, a person may become defensive. Denial is often an indication that something is wrong, especially if the person seems unconcerned that friends and family feel neglected or left out of his life.
  • Misuse of Money
    Someone who is addicted to video, computer, or Internet gaming will spend a disproportionate amount of money on computer-related items. The person will seem to be continually upgrading hardware, software packages, and accessories. This becomes an even greater problem if the person spends money that should be used for bills, groceries, and other necessities.
  • Mixed Feelings
    As with any addiction, use of the “substance” – in this case, the video game – initially causes euphoric feelings, but that euphoria is quickly followed by guilt. Guilt may be felt either over what the person is doing while online or simply the amount of time he is spending at the computer.

As you can see, your son is exhibiting symptoms or warning signs from both lists. If you talk to him, you may find that he is experiencing others as well. So you are right to be concerned. The gaming is eating up a lot of precious time for him and during adolescence, kids must work hard at developing the social skills, study skills, life skills and relationship skills that will see them into adulthood.

These are all developmental tasks that must be mastered before they can successfully move on to the next stage of development. If your son is shutting everything and everyone else out in order to be alone in his room with the computer, he will not be able to accomplish the goals of adolescence.

In addition, kids who become “addicted” to gaming can suffer physical problems including migraines, sleep disturbances, backaches, and carpal tunnel syndrome as well as the social and psychological ones.

So what can you do? Start making changes focused on reversing the situation, and the sooner the better. Getting him out of the house and into a sport was a great move on your part. Next is to limit the time he has access to computer and video games. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one to two hours TOTAL screen time (television, computer and video games) per day and stresses that the quality of it all should be high.

You can help him to find or develop other interests that take him out of the house (or at least his room) and into the company of other kids and adults. A part-time paid or volunteer job could also be a good way for him to get out and into the real world more.

If things don’t improve, you might consider finding an adolescent therapist who can work with him on whatever issues may be bothering him and give him some help in turning things around.

Just remember that kids are capable of great change and growth but they often need us to recognize the problem first and take the lead in solving it. Good luck to you both.

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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2 responses to “Does My Son Have A Gaming Addiction?”

  1. Kristin H

    Could it be possible that he is not feeling challenged at school, feeling pressure not to perform from his peers (directly or indirectly), or dealing with symptoms of ADD that the games satisfy but the classroom does not? The gaming, I think, could be a symptom and not the problem. Even the addiction could be a result of another, larger issue. It may be worth considering.

  2. Robert

    I really enjoyed reading this post. I am sure many people can relate to your situation regarding gaming addiction.

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