Our 9 year old has an unhealthy obsession with online games. What can we do?


A: You have all my empathy. For the parent of an average child, there is an inexhaustible source of stress associated with adhering to screen time limits. We’re flying blind when it comes to a parenting manual for this. We are the first generation of parents to fight against this phenomenon, and we (our culture as a whole) do not know what we are doing.

I say this not to freak you out; Rather, I want you to take comfort in knowing that parents around the world share your confusion and exasperation. You intuitively feel that too much screen time is unhealthy for your son (common sense parenting), and you know that early neuroscience shows that gaming affects certain parts of children’s brains, but that common sense and neuroscience don’t come together. not come together to create a consistent standard or recommendation. Essentially, we’re full of data points, but don’t have a roadmap for what to do. A quick visit to the American Academy of Pediatrics website provides some good data, but no conclusive recommendations for parents whose school-aged children use screens.

Even as I write this, there is more anecdotal research showing that school-aged children experience withdrawal symptoms when cut off from games and social media. So much so, in fact, that rehab centers have been set up to help teens acclimate to life without gambling. It’s a real, debilitating, and chronic problem for many parents. You’re not alone.

But what really piqued my interest was that emerging research reveals a strong correlation between people with executive function issues and negative screen time use/abuse. Essentially, if you have a neurotypical brain, chances are you use screen time to have fun, connect with others, and take a break. You are also able to put down the screens and interact in the real world without any significant withdrawal symptoms. Charming, right?

But if you have executive function issues, your screen use can take on obsessive qualities, negatively affecting your ability to function in the world, fueling depression and anxiety, and hampering healthy relationships.

For better or worse, we know your son has a special brain. He’s been diagnosed with ADHD (his ability to concentrate is compromised) and he’s gifted (his brain processes data at a faster rate or may have a different outlook than most kids). He’s a prime candidate for screen addiction because the ADHD brain often feels great when gaming. The fast decision-making, frenetic on-screen action, multiplayer aspect, and the fact that the game never ends might seem normal and good for ADHD and the gifted brain.

Lying, stealing, cracking passwords, downloading apps (and deleting yours) are behaviors driven by the reality that when he stops playing, his brain doesn’t feel safe. Why do I think this? You report that he is truly sorry and ashamed. Your son doesn’t want to sneak around and get obsessed with games; he is literally forced to (like an addiction). I have a lot of empathy for him. When I binge on social media, it feels good in the moment, but I can say that I rarely feel better after doing it. Like gorging on sugar or booze or heroin or sex, our brain feeds on the anticipation of the feeling, but then it never feels satisfied.

I turned to my friend Adam Pletter for some ideas. He is a child psychologist and runs an online course for parents who need help dealing with screens and children. It suggests a clear family contract, with every rule spelled out for parent and child. Because your son is both gifted and ADHD, we need a contract that emphasizes agreed-upon rules and building trust through the son’s increasingly trustworthy and appropriate behavior. It must also specify the consequences of breaking the rules (increased restriction, etc.).

While I’m generally not a fan of too many consequences (when used randomly they create more resistance), your son needs clear boundaries, rewards and consequences to help him focus and focus. promote accountability.

Pletter also suggests a more comprehensive online control system to prevent hacking and theft, like Disney’s Circle. There’s no perfect answer to keeping kids away from technology, and we’re not looking for a scorched-earth solution here. But we can absolutely stop in-app purchases and reduce hijacking by having games blocked.

I am also a big fan of “cell-free” Saturdays or Sundays. That means every family member stays off their screen all day. Yes, it’s hard to get used to and yes, you can make exceptions for sports games or something special that the whole family can enjoy. But in general, it’s a fun way to reconnect, hang out, play board or card games, or just laze around and read.

Finally, because he’s so bright, you’re going to have to find other things to occupy his mind. Of course, I want him to feel a little bored. You are not expected to entertain your son day and night. You would go crazy. But if he loves games and screens, is there a coding class or camp he could attend? Can he get attached to the school technician? Could it even help young children understand the fun side of certain games? Keep an open mind and look for options.

This is a difficult work. You will likely handle some highly provocative behaviors, and maintaining these boundaries will test your patience on all levels. Please find a safe place to unload your great feelings – a partner, friend, therapist, anyone who will offer compassion and a non-judgmental ear. Your main goal is to keep some of the technology at bay while you give your son’s brain a chance to mature. You have to let time do its job. Don’t get so caught up in the ugly little details that you lose focus on the big picture. Time equals brain maturity. Your son needs to grow up to better handle the onslaught of digital media.


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