Dear Dr Mark,
We’re very alarmed about our 17-year-old son George. His videogaming has made our family a war zone. His grades in high school are terrible, with many Ds and Fs, even though he is very bright. When we remind him to do his school work, he says he needs his computer and ends up gaming instead. Our efforts to restrict his access have failed. He was able to hack into our router to change settings to allow continued play, and no software holds him back. If we lock up the computers, he turns to his Xbox. If we take that away, he just plays on his iTouch. If we confiscate everything, he is enraged and goes to a friend’s house. It’s impossible to reason with George–he will listen politely, tell us what we want to hear, and then do exactly as he likes. He also insists that playing games–mostly Runescape and League of Legends–is the best way he has found to connect with his friends, so if we restrict it we are dooming him to isolation.
At school, his teachers offer extra help and have confronted his failure to perform in a very caring way, but he just doesn’t “buy in,” so there is no progress. Is there anything else we can do? Right now, it’s hard to see college or a future for him.
Talking to parents about gaming is one of my greatest challenges. Many are innately suspicious of anything that happens on the internet, especially socializing with people they don’t know. Opening skeptical minds to the potential benefits of all this is especially satisfying. When I see young people establishing unique relationships with peers across the country, and even across the world–sharing ideas, hopes, and dreams, or working together on intense and challenging games–it’s easy to point out the possibilities for vital and sustaining connections. Parents often hear loud messages about danger and risk, so it’s hard for them to accept this new way of engaging.
Gaming poses its own special problems. The engrossing and compelling nature of really good videogames creates a serious rift when players are unable to control or manage play and neglect basic life responsibilities. This certainly doesn’t happen with all gamers. I have known some who are able to achieve a balance that allows them to pursue their hobby passionately and continue to be viable in the real world.
This rift can easily boil over into constant conflict as parents struggle to set limits and assert priorities that their children reject. The natural tendency is to become commensurately more restrictive as the problem increases, which in many cases only increases the problem. Teenagers who live to game feel angry, resentful, and bored when deprived of their passion, and this often doesn’t lead to an embrace of parental expectations.
In the best case, negotiation and compromise is possible. The teen is willing to tolerate some limits on gaming in return for less hassling, and there is at least some effort to meet basic standards for schoolwork and family participation. Sometimes, this fails due to a factor that isn’t readily apparent. There could be learning disabilities or social difficulties that have led the teen to turn away from school, or some other family issue (marital problems, substance abuse) for which the gaming struggle is a cover. If these factors can be identified and dealt with, which sometimes requires counseling, reason may once again rule the day.
Let’s assume in this case that those factors can be ruled out and reason has simply failed. What can parents do?
One option is to accept that you have little real control over what a young adult chooses to do with his time. He isn’t doing anything illegal and he isn’t really hurting anyone but himself, though parents’ pain about such withdrawal and failure is often quite keen. There are lots of worse things kids can be doing these days than gaming. If you can accept this and back off, you are really leaving your son’s destiny in his own hands. He might not graduate, he might not go to college, and it might take him years to realize the opportunities he is missing. I’ve seen parents choose this option, and it sometimes results in a “basement dweller” young adult who can’t really can’t function or leave home. Other parents are able to launch the young person, but the adjustment is marginal. I’ve seen some cases where the teenager gets a job, learns to take care of himself and ultimately realizes that they need to get their act together if they want to progress. Any of these outcomes requires tremendous parental tolerance and restraint. It is very difficult to stand by passively and watch someone you love struggle like this.
Another option is a more extreme “intervention.” Some young people cannot control their self-destructive habits, whether it is gaming, drugs, alcohol, or something else. I have known families who literally removed their teen from home, placed them in an internet-free environment with lots of therapeutic support, and hoped this “drying out” would lead to some new developments. In a number of cases, this has worked. It usually requires a sustained removal (anyone can tolerate a week or two away from a habit), and the right environment with a helpful peer culture and adults who can encourage reflection and growth. I know this sounds extreme, but sometimes it can be life saving. I have not found these environments within the regular psychiatric care system. Many hospitals won’t accept patients who aren’t imminently dangerous, and insurance companies often push for very limited stays. It is not an option available to every family because it can be quite costly and also heart wrenching for parents.
You might ask if there is any middle ground. Intensive outpatient treatment can sometimes be helpful. When reason has failed, it’s sometimes worth trying therapy and even medication. This works better if the teen recognizes there is a problem and is willing to work on it. Some young people are resistant to talking, and may refuse medication. Valuable time can be wasted trying to lead a horse to water that he or she will not drink.
I’m addressing this very serious problem from the point of view of what parents can do, and in a sense, it is not much different than many problematic habits teens can acquire. Gaming can be lots of fun. Often, parenting is less fun, but when you help someone you care about grow, it is very satisfying.
Some of you have noticed that this column is appearing more infrequently. I’m still very interested in answering your questions and writing about gaming, but have many other projects that require my attention. I welcome any inquiries and will continue to produce columns episodically as I can. I’ve enjoyed hearing from The Escapist readers and especially appreciate your interesting thoughts and comments about the questions I have addressed.
Dr. Mark Kline hates pruning, weeding, and power washing, but enjoys mowing the lawn. Have a question for Dr. Mark? Send it to [email protected]. Your identity will remain confidential.