Kids with social learning challenges come pre-packaged with all the basic ingredients needed for a walloping case of video game dependency.
Some can “hyperfocus” for hours on a video game where the screen changes constantly. They love the intellectual engagement a good video game affords them, without having to do all the work of reciprocal, realtime engagement with a person right in front of them. And while we all get a nice little hit of pleasure in our brain’s reward circuitry from completing a level or winning a battle, some kids with ADD/ADHD or autism usually get fewer of these kinds of rewards from having a connected conversation or doing something fun with a friend. So video games are relatively more enticing to them than to your average bear.
In addition, most video games are designed to hook the user with increasingly challenging levels, leading toward a high score or beating the game. Other games hook the user with an emotional attachment to an avatar or to the relationships you develop with other players in multiplayer games – providing a level of satisfaction many kids with social challenges don’t get much of outside a video game.
For a kid with social challenges, it is much more work to maintain a peer’s interest for an hour on a playdate than to play Sonic the Hedgehog for four hours. On a successful playdate, kids need to negotiate which play activities to do and come to agreement, maintain connection while doing the activity, regulate anxiety during play, transition away from that activity, and then renegotiate to get to a new activity. It might look like they are riding skateboards for a while, digging through different toys, getting snacks, and playing with sticks outside. But in reality, they are doing a sophisticated tango of perspective taking, self-regulation, generating new ideas, problem solving, and multitasking both play and the peer engagement.
Very little of which they have to do to play Sonic. But all of which are skills they need to be developing in order to pursue a formal education, maintain employment, and keep a relationship with a significant other in the future.
Addiction or Not?
Many professionals who are experts on addiction lean toward classifying video game “addiction” as an impulse control issue, more like a gambling problem than a drug addiction. But if your child has such a problem with video games that it is seriously impacting his and your family’s quality of life, you probably don’t care much about these clinical distinctions.
It’s rare that a week goes by without my hearing parents worry about kids who give up previously preferred activities to play video games. Who turn off their phones and don’t answer calls from friends because they are too busy playing video games. Who don’t want to go anywhere fun on the weekends with their families because they want to stay home and play video games. Who hide devices in their rooms to play all night on, or sneak downstairs at night when their parents are asleep … to play video games. Who are hard to interact with when they are not playing video games. It can look and feel a lot like addiction.
How Did We Get Into This Mess?
First, knowing about video games gives kids a common cultural currency with which to connect with other kids. If everyone at school is talking about a certain video game, it helps kids with social challenges to connect if they at least know what it is. No wonder so many parents eventually give in and get an Xbox or PlayStation or other gaming platform for their kids.
However, kids with difficulty with transitions can have a very hard time unplugging their brains from a video game and switching to another activity (we call it shifting cognitive set). So do parents sometimes let kids play longer than we think is good for them, because we know it’s going to be ugly when we say it’s time to turn it off and do something else? You bet.
On the other hand, what do we teach their brains when we use video game access as the ultimate reward for helping out around the house, for getting homework done, for being nice to their sister all afternoon? We are teaching them that video games are pretty much the best thing life has to offer. Especially if we also severely restrict access at the same time, providing a climate of scarcity that elevates the value of video games even more.
Also, fewer parents feel safe these days letting our kids roam the neighborhood for hours. Particularly kids who have difficulty making accurate guesses about other people’s intentions, who are impulsive, and who desperately long for connection. When you combine that with the fact that our kids with social challenges may have less sophisticated play skills and fewer self-advocacy skills, it makes sense that we allow them to play video games in our own homes, where we at least know that they are safe.
What to Do
If you are getting professional help for a child’s gaming problem, the advice of your professional supersedes anything you’ll read about here. Otherwise, these are my suggestions:
Help your child learn to self-monitor their gaming time and develop some internal self-control over how much time he spends hooked up to a screen. This may be an ongoing project that needs your attention over a long period of time, so settle in.
Help your child to develop other play skills and friendship skills. These skills need room to develop, so you may have to carve out large chunks of time in which video games are not “open.” Like, Sundays, for example. Again, this is a long-term project.
Limit the number of devices you have for playing games in your home. In my house, there are too many screens already, so I had to turn down a grandparent’s offer to buy more for my kids this Christmas. (Sorry, guys!)
Help your kids develop leisure skills by developing some yourself. If you usually tend to turn to a screen for your downtime …
Make sure they have access to materials that will help them do something fun. This doesn’t mean you have to go out and spend a lot on toys. My friend has a kid who, given enough idle time, will eventually dig in the recycling to find some materials to make stuff out of.
Facilitate as many playdates as you and your kid can comfortably manage with real, live kids, or encourage your child to get out of the house if there are neighborhood kids he or she can play with and a safe enough neighborhood to play in.
For playdates with friends who also have issues with video game dependency, work out in advance how much time they will spend on video game play. “None” is a perfectly good answer, if you can stick with it. But if you have decided to model some flexible thinking on this, it helps if you end the agreed-upon video game time with a snack, then while they are eating, suggest a couple of non-screen-based activities as possible alternatives to get into after snack.
Some younger kids who love playing video games can be encouraged to play “real life” versions of a favorite video game with a friend. It’s not as creative or organic as coming up with a pretend play idea on their own, but it can help them scaffold good pretend play if they have a partner who will be the Luigi to their Mario. Good luck saving the princess!