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There’s a growing concern that teenagers, and especially male teens, are becoming increasingly dependent on online video games.  Many teenagers play for hours every day.  Parents have called with concerns that their sons (and sometimes daughters) are disconnecting from life.  Let’s look at a case my supervisor encountered a few years back.

She had a 15-year-old male come into therapy for depression and anxiety.  During the intake she discovered he was not going to bed until 2:00 or 3:00am most nights.  When she explored the reason for this he said, “I can’t get my homework done.”  Given that he finished sports at 4:00pm each afternoon, she found this to be unusual.  When she dug a little deeper, she realized he was consistently violating the 1 hour of video games per day rule his parents had set for him.  She found out he was actually playing 5-6 hours of video games per day, and 12-15 hours on weekend days.  No matter what his parents did he found a way around it.  They eventually shut down the internet.  He crawled under his covers in his bed and become utterly despondent.  He wouldn’t get out of bed to eat, shower, or go to school.  He held out so long that his parents gave back in, “but just for 1 hour per day.”  That worked well for about 2 weeks until he started pushing the boundary again.  This cycle continued.  Finally, his parents destroyed all his devices.  He became suicidal, which terrified them to the point they gave him new devices.  They allowed him to home-school thinking this would help him complete everything so he could get to bed on time.  It didn’t work.  This boy had a severe online gaming addiction.

I’m not sure your teenager is at such an extreme place, but if that is sounding a little familiar then read on.  Video gaming addiction is especially common in role-playing games (RPGs).  In these games your child makes up a character and lives in a fantasy world.  Imagine the allure for an adolescent who isn’t especially popular in real life.  The brain’s reaction to feeling powerful, well-liked, and purposeful is intense.  There is another side to the story though.

If your son or daughter is spending hours and hours in front of a screen living in a false world, what skills are being developed?  Is your teenager learning how to cope with the nuances of real life?  Is your teenager learning to socialize, date, do physical activity, or have enough self-control to go to bed at a good hour?  Yes, your teen is physically safe from harm because they are sitting at home, but there is another, more subtle harm being done.

Video gaming addiction is an actual thing, and very hard on a family.  Your teenager must learn to live without games but still use a computer.  Your teenager will experience REAL withdrawals when you pull the plug.  There isn’t a happy medium for a child who has this addiction.  Cutting back is a short-term solution.  It’s like someone who has quit smoking cigarettes saying they plan to only have one when they drink.  That will work for a time, but soon enough they will be smoking again.

I know this is heart-breaking for you and your family.  I know you feel some level of guilt for buying the games in the first place.  No matter what got you here, just accept the problem as it is and begin to walk forward.  Acknowledging there is a problem is the first step.  The second step is equally as important; you must reach out for help.

Helping teens grow and families improve connection,

Cameron Munholland, MMFT, Associate MFT