Youth and Video Gaming : When should you be concerned?

Gone are the days when your kid gets home from school and plays in the street until dusk with neighbors. Seeing a child spend dozens of hours per week gaming or watching Youtube videos of others gaming (yes, really!) is the new norm.

Question: But when does gaming become a clinical concern?

Answer: When it serves as avoidant behavior. Let me explain.

Maybe your child has social anxiety, low self-esteem, has been a victim of bullying and is using gaming to meet their social needs. In this scenario, their socialization is between other online players (not same-aged friends who have ransacked your refrigerator before) and usually scattered all over the country. Although your child may consider these people their good friends, their relationship is almost always superficial and hinders social confidence at school and in the community. There is a big difference between a rejection in the sandbox and pop-up box.
For your child, having safe online relationships where the burn of rebuff stings less, is better than no friends at all. Trust me! Stopping this relational pattern is tough. First, when they play video games so much they typically become good at them and feeling a sense of mastery is good for the self-esteem. Also, gaming becomes a community and part of their identity, which is especially important starting in middle school.
Just like any craft or skill, when your child does not practice how to engage with a group of teammates or how to handle feelings of sadness relating to being left out, they start losing their social skills —the old use them or lose them—and retreat. Your child starts losing confidence in their ability to socialize in person where they find richer, real life connections which will fuel their social, emotional, and intellectual development. Your child might learn to become satisfied with only online friends and stop pursuing friendships in school or the community.
Often, when gaming friends and time consumes their world, symptoms of depression and anxiety set in, which leads to other problematic behaviors affecting their school and home life.

What’s going on with my child’s behavior?

If you are on edge and can’t focus at work because you are waiting for the call from school or if you are worried your child is coming home sad or angry, you know what’s like to have a child with a behavioral or adjustment problem. School behavior problems develop for various reasons, but typically they are related to some underlying mental health problem or stresses in the home and/or social environment that overpower their ability to cope.

Common issues:

What you can do?

Family therapy can help youth deal with changes in the household by giving them the space to be validated and heard by adults. If not understood by their caregivers, youth can do self-sabotaging behavior at school to get “even” or call attention to parents—negative attention can be better than none. Having low self-confidence and poor social skills, can lead to children being excluded and often bullied. This can create the child to take out their feelings of resentment and hurt through acting out. Poor social skills can lead your child to not take risks (e.g. starting a new activity) which can lead to isolation and pain. Academic underachievement can result in a young person giving up and not focusing on their work. With time on their hands, children get bored and often act out. This serves to get attention (negative), frequently as a way of saying they are not well and need help. Individual and group therapy can help with the abovementioned problems as well.

What do the numbers say?

When a teacher says your child is hyperactive, has difficulties paying attention, and misbehaves, professionals can be quick to say the child has ADHD, however, remember 11% of youth have a mood disorder (e.g. depression). 10% of youth have a behavior or conduct disorder (e.g. ADHD); and 8% of youth have an anxiety disorder ( e.g., social anxiety, PTSD). (National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2017). 20% of youth ages 13-18 live with a mental health condition.
Most mental health problems children suffer from mimic a handful of ADHD symptoms.

What’s often lacking?

Healthy coping skills are something all children need to develop to reach normal development and deal with adversity and create resilience. Sometimes youth use hitting or verbal disrespect to deal with feelings of frustration. Youth often cope with feeling of isolation and boredom by becoming addicted to electronics. Teenagers can turn to substances to help alleviate difficult feelings. Sometimes children are hard on themselves in order to motivate academic or social success—this has the exact opposite effect, typically. Having healthy thoughts about oneself is fundamental to a good self-esteem and normal social/emotional growth.