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How to Encourage a Healthy Relationship with Gaming

How to Encourage a Healthy Relationship with Gaming

Gaming has become one of the most popular hobbies there is. With so many different types of video games on the market, there’s truly something for everyone. Playing video games is a great way to pass the time, have fun, and even learn new things.

That said, gaming can also  become an unhealthy obsession – easily. It’s no secret that many people struggle with addiction. What is less known, however, is that any hobby or interest can be taken to unhealthy extremes. Gaming is no exception. In fact, many games are explicitly designed to be addictive – keeping the user playing longer and more often.

Fortunately, we can help protect our kids from becoming addicted to gaming by understanding exactly how it occurs. Read on to learn more about encouraging a healthy relationship with gaming.

The Addicted Brain

Addiction develops in similar ways, regardless of the substance or activity driving the addiction. In a nutshell, addiction occurs because of the way our brain releases dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter sometimes referred to as the “feel-good” chemical. Its purpose is to help keep us alive by rewarding us with good feelings when we do something necessary for our survival: eating food, having sex, and enjoying community, for example.

In our modern world, surviving isn’t as hard as it used to be. Most of us have a much higher tolerance for dopamine than our ancestors would have, so the same dopamine “hits” don’t feel as good.

Addictive substances and activities cause us to release dopamine in larger amounts and when repeated over time, create neural pathways that make it difficult to feel pleasure in more natural ways. This is how addiction begins.

Why Gaming is So Addictive

Many video games are actually designed to be addictive. The longer and more often a user plays, the more money game designers can make – whether through in-game ads, purchases, or sales of the games themselves. It’s quite lucrative for video game companies to get users to play all the time.

On top of that, gaming addiction can also be more difficult to recover from. It’s more socially acceptable than being an alcoholic or drug addict. It’s also difficult to avoid temptation when so much of our modern lifestyle relies on using the Internet. Adam Alter, author of Irresistible, explains: “You can hold a job, pay your bills, and communicate without using drugs and alcohol, but not without using the Internet.”

That’s why it’s so important to take control of our relationship with gaming in the first place – those who make the games certainly aren’t going to.

It’s helpful to identify the worst offenders right away. While many games can be enriching and mentally stimulating, some are designed to get you clicking and tapping without much thought. To have a healthy relationship with gaming, it’s important to decipher whether the game is really going to bring the user joy and relaxation, or simply feed an unhealthy pattern of behavior.

If you look at any game, you can usually spot a pattern of gameplay designed to give the user “hits” of dopamine that encourage them to keep playing: goals, feedback, progress, escalation, and cliffhangers. These behavioral ingredients occur repeatedly to keep the player engaged.

While any game or activity can be addictive, there are some that are more blatantly addictive than others. Also, like food, some have a greater number of enriching qualities than others. Some questions you can ask when assessing a game are:

  • What is the goal in this game?
  • Does this game encourage creativity?
  • How often does the game suggest in-game purchases to keep playing?
  • Does the game offer a social component?

If a game strikes you as the behavioral equivalent of junk food, it’s better to avoid it altogether.

a father and son sit on a couch with game controls in their hands

Tips for Healthy Gaming

In moderation, gaming can be a healthy part of your child’s lifestyle. To ensure moderation, establish a few boundaries that will keep them safe.

  • Limit screen time – everyone is different, but the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry does offer some guidelines: “For children 2-5, limit non-educational screen time to about 1 hour per weekday and 3 hours on the weekend days. For ages 6 and older, encourage healthy habits and limit activities that include screens.“
  • Play together – One of the key precursors to addiction is loneliness. Be sure to spend plenty of time bonding with your child over activities they enjoy – both gaming and otherwise.
  • Practice mindfulness – meditation is a powerful habit that can help combat addiction by helping us become more self aware.
  • Take regular breaks from gaming – consider establishing weekly “screen-free” days for your family.
a game controller sits on a purple surface

Symptoms of Gaming Addiction

Gaming addiction is quite serious, especially for children whose brains are still developing. Gaming addiction is associated with physical aggressiveness, lack of empathy, anxiety, and depression. The symptoms of gaming addiction mirror the symptoms of other types of addiction. These include:

  • Preoccupation with gaming when doing other activities
  • Dishonest or sneaky behavior around gaming
  • Anger or depression when unable to play games
  • Lack of control when it comes to time spent playing games
  • Loss of interest in other activities
  • Increased distance in relationships

If you suspect that your child has an unhealthy relationship with gaming, it’s important to take action right away. Overcoming an addiction is never easy, but the sooner the problem is dealt with, the sooner they’ll be able to feel better and develop healthier habits.

In Glow Kids, author Nicholas Kardaras describes a digital detox period that’s helpful for kids who are addicted to gaming. The approach is similar to how an addict might come off of drugs or alcohol – that is, screen time is reduced gradually over time to a healthy amount to avoid any explosive mental health issues.

For example, if someone has been gaming for 5 hours every day, they could reduce that time by an hour each day until the amount of time is zero – then therapy can begin.

Addiction is always an alarming topic, but by making conscious choices about gaming, we can help our kids have good mental health throughout life.

Resources

  1. Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction is Hijacking Our Kids – and How to Break the Trance by Nicholas Kardaras, Ph.D
  2. Outsmart Your Smartphone: Conscious Tech Habits for Finding Happiness, Balance, &  Connection IRL by Tchiki Davis, Ph.D
  3. Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter
  4. https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Children-And-Watching-TV-054.aspx

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