My 17-Year-Old is Addicted to Video Games!

Filed under: Expert Advice: Teens

Dear AdviceMama,

Our family is trapped in video game hell. My son is 17, and the gaming is out of control. It has ruined our relationship, turning him into someone I don't even know who uses language that I can't believe is coming from him. What's more, my husband (his dad) allows it, because he is just as addicted to playing. They will sit and play games for 12-plus hours at a time, ignoring mealtimes and my requests to set a time limit.

Since we aren't in agreement, I'm trying to find a solution on my own. Forget imposing limits or taking the game away; violence begins (doors smashed, etc). I'm to the breaking point and don't even want to be in my own home anymore. I am even considering divorce. Any suggestions?

Trapped in Video Hell

Dear Trapped,

I have worked with a number of teenage clients whose addiction to video games resemble what you're describing. What started as an innocent diversion became -- for these young men -- as addictive as drugs. When their parents attempted to manage the behavior by either limiting access or pulling the plug on the credit card that funded the game, their youngsters became frantic, violent, depressed and/or withdrawn.

In some cases, Mom or Dad caved in and removed the restrictions, but, in two families, the parents held their ground. I distinctly remember one of these teens telling me a few months later how dependent they had gotten on the exhilaration the games provided, and how it had served as a diversion from painful adolescent issues that they felt unable to face.

I've long believed that we don't understand how addictive video games can be to some people, and that we need to bring them into our homes more consciously and cautiously. For a teen who is shy, awkward, socially immature or lacking in confidence (and very few teens aren't in that category!), the power and sense of camaraderie that video games offer are compelling.

And, of course, if your son is having some semblance of "bonding time" with his dad as they play together, it can be an almost impossible habit to break.

Frankly, there are two issues in your question; one has to do with video games, and the other -- which I won't address here, but should be explored by you and your husband -- has to do with the shape your marriage is in. If your husband is playing video games non-stop whenever he's home, and has withdrawn from engaging in meals and family activities, I would urge you to seek professional counseling. The marital tension is likely to be spilling over into your son's obsession with video games, and, therefore, the advice I offer will have to include you and your husband at least attempting to heal the rift in your marriage.

As for your son, if he falls apart or becomes violent when you try to limit his gaming, it may be that he is relying on the games to mask other issues. Whether it's depression, social discomfort, anxiety or low self esteem, you'll need to determine what's fueling your son's intense fixation on the games. It's likely that he is using them to numb himself, which is why -- like someone addicted to drugs -- he no longer speaks or behaves like his usual self.

Until you help him deal with whatever challenges he's trying to sweep under the rug by distracting himself with his video games, he is not likely to be agreeable about limiting them.

I wish I had a simpler answer for you, but, frankly, the human brain loves dopamine, and the rush of pleasure and adrenalin that video games provide is intensely compelling. I strongly encourage parents to establish clear-cut guidelines for how many hours a week their youngster can play video games before buying them, and to stick to the plan without negotiating.

Not long ago, a family I worked with told me they were planning to give one of their three young sons a video game system for his birthday. I shared my view that, in some respects, they were about to introduce their kids to heroin (a strong analogy, I know). I cautioned them not to underestimate the affect the games would have on their sons -- or the potential conflict they would create over who got to use them and for how long.

They gifted the system on a Saturday, and came in for a session with me two days later, on Monday. Laughing, they told me they had already packed it up and had it ready to be returned to the store. In less than 24 hours, the behaviors they saw in their boys convinced them to get rid of the video games.

Address these issues at their root, and get professional help if necessary so you can help your son get back on track. While many kids can and do enjoy video gaming as one of their many activities, when it becomes an obsession, parents need to step in.

Yours in parenting support,

AdviceMama, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.