Teenagers and video gaming. It’s a combination that often brings out the worst in both kids and parents.
Kids, particularly boys, see gaming as a fun hobby, a stress-relief, and an easy way to hang out with friends from the comfort of their own room.
They view the activity as an unhealthy time-suck, one that replaces “important” things like studying, physical exercise, and time spent with family members. As my son moved through his teen years, I set limits on his gaming time, allowing him a little more opportunity to self-regulate each year, and to take ownership of time-management skills. I felt like as long as he was keeping up his grades and getting his chores done, I wouldn’t make an issue of it, and it rarely became one.
When the end of his senior year of high school approached, and we began talking a lot more about dorm life, I overheard him speaking to my husband one day about taking the PS4 console to college. Something in me kind of snapped and I found myself almost uncontrollably rushing into his room and asserting loudly, “ABSOLUTELY NOT!”
Almost like a brief nightmare, I envisioned a darkened dorm room, blinds shut tight, my son in a smelly t-shirt with headphones on, Pop-Tart wrappers scattered about at 11am, while a lecture hall seat sat empty across campus. I admit I completely catastrophized for a moment, believing that a black, plastic box plugged into his wall and a controller in his hands could very well spiral into missed classes, few new friends and him failing out of his freshman year. Crazy much?
But was I?
We’ve all heard a horror story or two. A bright kid heads off to college, perhaps a Computer Science or Engineering major, bringing along a couple of gaming platforms and without any parental supervision for the first time in their life, can’t control their behavior and end up flunking almost every first semester class.
Added to any anecdotal stories you may have heard, is the fact that the World Health Organization’s 2018 International Classification of Diseases includes “Gaming Disorder” under a section on “disorders due to addictive behaviors.” (The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) published in 2013 did not go as far as designating gaming addiction as a unique mental disorder, but it “recognized internet gaming disorder in the section recommending conditions for further research.”)
Experts agree that gaming must cause “significant impairment or distress” in several aspects of a person’s life for it to be truly considered a disordered behavior. It’s easy to see how wording like this can be interpreted very differently by a parent versus a teenager.
And teens are quick to point out the positive impacts of gaming, which are legitimate. There is research that shows playing video games over time improves cognitive skills such as reasoning, memory, and spatial navigation, along with physical gains in reaction time, hand-eye coordination, and visual attention span.
However, and not surprisingly, young adult males are at the greatest risk for gaming to become an addictive and problematic behavior, due to the flexible work and study hours associated with a higher education lifestyle, along with living away from home for the first time.
Does this mean you should forbid your new college student from having a gaming system at school with them? And won’t they just end up playing games on smaller devices anyway?
Some parents want their students to have the ability to game, as it is a safe form of stress relief for most gamers, and college is definitely stressful at times. I’ve heard Moms say, “I’d rather have my son playing video games than binge-drinking or doing drugs as a form of entertainment at college.” It’s interesting to note that “gaming researchers Patrick Markey and Christopher Ferguson (2017) point out in a recent book that video gaming raises dopamine levels in the brain to about the same degree that eating a slice of peperoni pizza or dish of ice cream does (without the calories). That is, it raises dopamine to roughly double its normal resting level, whereas drugs like heroin, cocaine, or amphetamine raise dopamine by roughly ten times that much.”
Kids who tend to deal with stress by avoiding rather than approaching the realities of life are the ones most likely to develop problems with gaming while at college. If you’ve already seen your student use gaming to consistently escape dealing with stressful events during their high school years, or if they have pre-existing depression or anxiety, the gaming discussion is an important one to have, starting months before they are due to leave home.
The approach that I took with my son was sharing my belief that your first semester at college is the “golden hour” for meeting new people. Everyone is seeking out new connections and when you’re not in class, studying, or sleeping, you should be using your time to make friends and explore your new surroundings. Basically, you should be too busy to have time for video games.
I was happy that he agreed and left his console at home without any protest. I was even happier that when he came home for winter break, he fully acknowledged that he wouldn’t have really had any time to game anyway. I know that he went to friends’ rooms occasionally to play video games with them, but I felt better knowing that his own PS4 was not in his dorm room, tempting him on a daily basis.
Another Mom I know took a different approach that ended up working well for her son. She explained to me that, “If I had told him that he wasn’t allowed to take his systems, he would have resented me. He had to figure out for himself how to manage his time and his grades.” She gave her son the ability to sink or swim, and after one instance of a “D” in a Math class, he self-corrected and managed his time better, graduating in four years with acceptances to all four graduate programs he applied to.
No matter which approach you take as a parent regarding gaming systems for your first-year student, the focus needs to not be on a symptomatic behavior that allows our kids to avoid unpleasant emotions, but on identifying the underlying problem in their life, if they are consistently wanting to escape from something.
Balance and moderation are the keys to a healthy life, and we all struggle at times with self-regulating our coping behaviors. The question is whether you are comfortable allowing your 17 or 18-year old college freshman to deal with any and all negative consequences of poor gaming- time management. If video gaming has simply been an enjoyable hobby, it will likely continue to function as such when your kid moves on to college. If it has created problems in the past, it may become an even bigger problem in the future.