“Mom, just five more minutes! I have to finish this level!” is probably a plea you have heard if your teen or child plays video games. For those who love to play, video games are easily accessible and can be played on PC’s, consoles, or hand-held devices. Nowadays, with the advent of smart phones, one no longer needs to be in front of a computer or TV monitor to play: video games can go with you to work, school, on an airplane, or wherever the itch to play may arise. The ability to play Scrabble, to launch birds onto unsuspecting pigs, or to rid the planet of zombies can be a harmless distraction for some, but for others it can become an overriding obsession that interferes with daily life. Recent evidence suggests that too much time “plugged in” to video gaming can have an unfavorable impact on brain development and overall functioning, especially for kids and teens. “Too much” can vary anywhere between 1 to 7 or more hours per day, according to the research.
As a clinician, I frequently see children, teens, and adults that struggle with ADHD, depression, social anxiety, and interpersonal conflicts that may have been caused or worsened by excessive video game play. By contrast, video games, when played in moderation, can be fun, interesting, entertaining, and serve as a release. Problem-solving and thinking skills can be challenged and strengthened. So gaming can work as a healthy coping strategy, even promoting healthy self-esteem and confidence. Sounds pretty good, thus the questions you may be logically asking are, “How do I know when my child’s video game playing is becoming a problem?” and “What can I do to promote a more balanced lifestyle for my child?” The answer to these questions and more are to follow, but first, let’s look at data regarding brain functioning and the relationship to video game playing.
As we get older, our brains go through some remarkable changes, though until relatively recently, most scientists believed that the brain was considered fully mature by the age of 10 or 12. New findings indicate that the greatest changes to the parts of the brain that are responsible for functions such as self-control, judgment, emotions, and organization occur between puberty and adulthood. In one sense, adolescence could be described as an opportunity to hardwire the brain for new skill sets, such as learning an instrument, becoming proficient in a language or mathematics, playing a sport, or beginning to master vocational skills. The greater exposure the adolescent has to a variety of different experiences and knowledge – bases, the stronger the brain becomes, and so does the brain’s ability to integrate information. This quality of ongoing and gradual growth in skills may help to explain some of the behavior teens often exhibit as they first become exposed to new challenges that find them dabbling in activities that feature recklessness, poor choices, compulsivity, and emotional volatility. The learning curve can be bumpy–especially for parents along for the ride – but the brain needs experience and time to grow on.
Another important aspect of brain growth during this period is the “use it or lose it” principle, or pruning, where neural pathways that are not used eventually wither away, while those that are used remain. Too much narrowing of experience is likely to allow other acquired skill areas to fall into disuse and to fade away. If we spend several years learning to play the piano, but then stop for a couple of years, it will take a while to rebuild the motor skills we once had and return to a previous level of facility in playing. To keep the brain growing and maintaining what is has acquired, then, a balance of focused intensity and variety of experience is ideal.
Playing Video Games and Brain States
At all stages, brain states frequently change based on the demands of the day. The majority of our days are spent being productive in some way whether that is going to school, work, or some other form of goal-oriented task. We need to rely on our problem-solving skills, organization, and attentiveness to learn and navigate each of the challenges that the day has in store. Naturally we need our brain to be activated — in other words in a Beta state so that our productivity and overall functioning leads to goal achievement. By contrast, Alpha state brain waves are indicative of a brain at rest. Meditation and yoga are often associated with Alpha brain waves as the brain’s activity level drops off as it goes into a resting state.
As we watch our child become fused with their game console and locked into prolonged play, their body jerking about in sync with exploding obstacles and dodged rockets, squealing in delight as new high-point totals are reached, we might not think of video game activity as anything remotely similar to meditation. Guess again.
A recent study found Beta waves were close to zero while playing video games more than 1 hour a day, especially in the pre-frontal part of the brain responsible for attention, focus, impulsivity, problem solving, judgment and emotional regulation. Moreover, Alpha waves were raised, reinforcing the brain to stay “offline” or in a resting state. The more play there was, the greater the level of conditioning to Alpha states took place, causing an imbalance in how the brain shifts from a calm and restful state to an alert action-oriented state — such as that required for learning, giving attention to details, and engaging successfully in complex social interactions.
Perhaps this is why other research suggests that video games contribute and reinforce attention and focus problems among teens and children, especially those with a pre-disposition to ADD or ADHD. In the brain, excessive video game play creates a situation akin to a car being stuck in low gear that struggles to shift when a natural increase in speed is demanded or required. Here is another point where the situation deepens even further.
Video Games – Attention, Focus and Concentration
Do you ever wonder why kids seem to have a never ending supply of attention, focus and concentration when it come to playing video games, yet completing homework assignments can become a major undertaking? The explanation for this scenario may be linked to how the brain is conditioned when games are being played versus when schoolwork or other less desirable tasks need to be completed. Games are goal-driven in that challenges and levels keep moving and changing as the gamer strives to achieve a higher rank, master a level, or better a foe. An example of this dynamic can be found in the more popular games such as Call of Duty or World of Warcraft. It can take the average gamer several months to achieve the highest level in each of these games. That combined with ongoing releases of new games to each series that can keep gamers perpetually trying to best their high score. Eventually, they may tire of that game and move on to new games that promise the same or even greater challenges and thrills.
Sounds a little like the stereotypical dope-pusher-in-a-shabby-raincoat-hanging-around-the-schoolyard scenario, doesn’t it? In fact, there is a neuro-chemical basis for making such a statement. As each new goal is met or a goal is achieved, a neuro-chemical you may have heard of called Dopamine is released; Dopamine is strongly associated with feelings of pleasure. Due to the nature of video game design, the brain is inundated with hundreds or thousands of little dopamine releases powerfully conditioning the brain to seek more of the same through continued game play. Alpha states are conditioned in the process, meaning a larger role for that brain state and even more resistance to engaging in activities that require Beta state functioning.
While video games are not evil, there is a point reached where these unintended affects become subtly yet insidiously activated. Children & teens who are consistently playing video games approximately more than one hour at a sitting are at-risk for skewing the way their brains function for the remaining 23 hours of the day.
Emotional Issues and Video Gaming
In my practice I often see children and teens who are struggling academically or socially, causing them some distress, usually in the form of depression and/or anxiety. They describe a “retreat” from their depression into video games which only isolates them further and does not help their grades – causing even more distress.
So, was the child experiencing some emotional issues such depression, anxiety, social impairment, etc, that caused them to be drawn to video games; or did excessive video game playing cause their anxiety, depression or social impairment. Many game players would not consider 2 to 5 hours a day (or more) of play to be excessive, and so could easily fall into the brain-trap syndrome described above. They are “just having fun” or “practicing” or “hanging out” with their on-line friends.
When played in moderation, it is clear that for some, video games legitimately appear to be a way of relaxing, blowing-off stress, having fun, or obliquely facing other challenges that adolescents regularly face. In this sense, game-playing can be an adaptive coping strategy and a great hobby. The point at which things change can be subtle and hard for both kids and parents to notice.
A helpful way to determine if game playing is problematic is by looking at the way your child prioritizes it among other activities. These are clues that game playing may be interfering with important developmental and global means of growth.
Here are some behaviors/patterns to watch out for:
Games come first: A drop in academic performance and other important responsibilities are sidelined, as game playing takes up more time. The ratio of game-time to time-spent-on-other-activities has radically shifted. This can also include time spent on game websites or You Tube where gamers congregate to discuss strategies and game information. Skipping meals to keep playing might be seen, or you catch them playing quietly at night under the covers.
Games become favored above all: Pleading for the newest game or game system replaces pleading for a new bike, that new telescope so desired 6 months ago is no longer used, and grades become less important, or, lower grades become more acceptable. Hanging-out with flesh-and-blood friends in the neighborhood becomes the exception and meeting friends on-line becomes the rule. Discussion about games, game systems, characters, strategies, release dates, etc. becomes an increasingly prominent topic of conversation. Other forms of enrichment (sports, music lessons, Scouts, etc.) become less-favored and dropping-out of them becomes a possibility.
Mood-state changes associated with game play: Increase in irritability or hostility especially before, during, or directly after game playing. Excitement and delight while playing the game but emotional flatness or remoteness when not playing. Sadness or dejection if the game is broken or off-limits. Anxiety has increased in social situations, especially around same aged peers. Disturbances in sleep might be seen as well.
Cognitive changes: Troubles with concentration, judgment, restlessness, and impulsivity have developed or have worsened after game playing became more frequent. Difficulties are seen shifting into and maintaining focus on learning or social activities.
What should I do if my child does play video games?
Video games can be a healthy, adaptive way of coping with stress or blowing off some steam. Video games are not the problem, as a matter of fact, games can actually assist in developing some cognitive, perceptual and problem solving skills. The problem is not with the games rather the way they are being played. Balance is key not only for game players but for us all. Doing too much of anything, even activities that are filled with enrichment such as school or work can become problematic in the same way game playing can. High achieving teens can often develop anxiety, depression and social challenges as a result of too much studying. Similarly, a workaholic is at a greater risk for interpersonal struggles as well as possible physical issues like high blood pressure high, heart disease and stroke. There is a great deal of truth in the proverb “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”, but conversely, all play and no work will also cause significant functional problems. The goal is to balance and prioritize work and leisure so that a balanced, functional and fulfilling way of life can be achieved. Here are some ways to create balance while not stripping your child of a potentially harmless and enjoyable pass time.
- Limit video screen time (video games, television, computer) to no more than one – two hours a day.
- An hour of homework, reading, social (face to face), sports will earn an hour of screen time not exceeding two hours a day. Homework should always be completed before game playing.
- Help your child experience other activities that will encourage healthy cognitive, emotional, physical and social development such as sports, learning an instrument, joining a club, or any other form of healthy enrichment.
- Set up standards for screen time based on meeting familial, social, and academic expectations. Discuss with your children what the expectations are and give them an opportunity to show you they can successfully manage their time. If they begin to struggle, talk about temporary solutions, which may mean a suspension in game playing until the expectations are met.
- Always work collaboratively with your children and develop a plan for success. Becoming reactionary and taking their games away as the default punishment will discourage your child and will likely not resolve the underlying problem in that given area.
- Use their interests as a way to bond and strengthen the parent/child attachment. Ask your child about the game they play and have them show you how they play. Games may be a positive source of esteem, which can be shared with you.
If you feel the once, harmless pastime of video game playing has become a source of stress for your child and family, please feel free to contact me as I welcome the opportunity to assist you.