Why Won't My Kid Stop Playing Video Games?
... and why it matters.
Posted Nov 11, 2020
Parents often ask me, “Why won’t my child stop playing video games?” Many conclude that the games themselves are to blame and that their child has been corrupted by their influence.
Video game creators do usually design games to be hard to put down (I described several ways they manipulate players here and here), but this is an oversimplification. When people have trouble balancing their play with the rest of their lives, it is important to understand why they are playing so many games.
This is true for any symptom. For example, students who cannot pay attention in class might have ADHD ... or their lack of focus could be due to anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, malnutrition, lack of sleep, a learning disorder, something important on their mind, or just a boring teacher.
In the same way, it is important to first understand why those students cannot focus, it is necessary to understand the reason a person is playing too many video games to understand how to help.
One of the main reasons video game addiction is so hard to define is that playing video games for hours can be explained in a number of ways, including depression, social anxiety, ADHD, socializing, and autism.
The most common reason people play so many video games is also the simplest—video games are fun. They allow us to challenge ourselves, experience fantastic worlds, compete with one another, build skills, and explore who we are.
One parent I spoke with was distraught by how much her 11-year-old son was playing Call of Duty, a violent shooter game. Right after they moved to a new town, his time on his Xbox doubled. Eventually, she confronted him about this new obsession and was pleasantly surprised by his response. “My friends are there,” he explained. “All my old friends get together after school and play together. It’s the only chance I have to spend any time with them.” This is typical: Teenagers are much more likely to want to spend time casually chatting while playing a game, even while virtually shooting each other.
There are also a variety of individual factors someone might choose to spend time playing video games. One of the most typical is depression.
Simply put, major depressive disorder is a condition often evidenced by a significant lack of energy and motivation, usually coupled with persistent feelings of sadness. Through no fault of their own, people who have depression often find it difficult or impossible to get out of bed, go to work, do homework, go to the store, or spend time with friends.
For someone with depression, the amount of mental energy it takes to even get out of bed can be totally overwhelming. What doesn’t require a lot of energy? Video games.
In fact, it is so common to see depression and “video game addiction” at the same time that some have suggested the latter does not exist. In other words, if a person sits at home and spends all of his time playing video games, is he really “addicted” to the games? Or does he just have depression and an interest in video games?
Similarly, people with social anxiety disorder—a persistent, irrational fear of being in social situations—often find it easier to be at home in front of a screen than with others. This response can be both positive and negative. Interacting with others in front of a screen is better than not interacting with others at all, but it also risks replacing in-person interactions altogether.
Broadly, video games are useful for someone with social anxiety when it leads to genuine connection with others, and problematic when in-game communication is harmful or when people use video games to numb the pain of not having friends.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition that makes it difficult to intentionally focus one’s attention. Children with ADHD are more likely to exhibit “problematic video game behavior” than their neurotypical peers.
This has led some researchers to question whether video games and other media cause symptoms of ADHD. So far, no evidence has backed this claim, but there does seem to be a connection between the two.
One man with ADHD I spoke with explained, “If I find something exciting or enjoyable, I don’t have to try to focus on it. I can just exist and give my brain a chance to rest. My brain is noisy and when I’m playing a video game I can ‘lower the volume’ for a while.”
In other words, for someone with ADHD, it takes a lot of energy just to get through the day, especially when one must concentrate at work or to do homework. Video games are an effective break—something enjoyable that does not require effort.
Autism is a condition generally characterized by difficulty with communication, repetitive behavior, strong emphasis on order and routine, and is often accompanied by unusually sensitive senses. When surveyed, many autistic adults said that they enjoy playing video games to relieve stress, feel a sense of accomplishment, bond with others, experience storytelling, and several other reasons that are also endorsed by their allistic peers. This raises the question—if they play for the same reasons as allistic people, why do autistic people play nearly twice as many video games?
Some autistic adults suggest that one of the reasons autistic people play so many video games is that they give them a sense of security. One expert with Asperger’s* suggested, “We play video games because they’re fun, but we continue to play video games because that’s where the safe place is ... if I’m playing something safe and the outside world [is] yelling at me, of course I’m going to continue to do the safe thing.”
This means that for many, video games serve the same purpose as a hot shower or warm bed after a long day. Playing “too many” video games could simply reflect the chaos they feel in the rest of their lives.
Psychological research has begun to confirm that it is possible to have a clinical addiction to video games. The World Health Organization added gaming disorder to its expansive list of diagnoses in 2018.
However, not every person who plays “too many video games” actually has an addiction. It is statistically much more likely that they have depression, social anxiety, autism, ADHD, a combination of diagnoses, or another condition masquerading as video game addiction. It is also very likely that they are playing games simply as a way to connect with peers or because games are fun. The appropriate therapeutic response is different for each, so the reason for the excessive video gameplay must be understood first.
*Some consider the term “Asperger’s” to be offensive and prefer to be referred to as autistic. In 2013, the two were combined into “Autism Spectrum Disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which is used for diagnosis. I have used “Asperger’s” here to reflect the speaker’s apparent preference.
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