How to reduce your child's excessive video game usage.

I no longer have an Xbox in my house on a regular basis.    My nineteen-year-old son isn’t happy about it but he understands why.  His Xbox usage/computer gaming usage is limited to weekend evenings only.
It did not require reading studies in academic journals to know that there is a direct correlation between his behavior and amount of time he spends on Xbox/computer gaming.  The more he is on Xbox the more emotionally dysregulated he becomes.  Furthermore, he becomes self-centered (which he is not usually), is more likely to lie and evade his household chores.   He is less active and has a propensity to overeat when he spends excessive amounts of time playing Xbox or computer games.   His behavior changes drastically for the better after he has been away from video games for a few days.  He engages more in conversations, is nicer to be around and is more likely to go outdoors and be helpful around the house. 
It probably does not come as a surprise to that kids who present with ADHD, Asperger’s or higher-verbal autism have a propensity to play video games excessively.  Their executive functioning challenges combined with compulsive gaming can be a recipe for significant problems down the road.   I have worked with (and hear about many more) young adults who have been attended excellent colleges yet can’t make it through their first semester because they cannot manage their screen time usage or sleep hygiene due to excessive video game use.
Video games serve a more significant function and hold greater emotional meaning to kids with mild neurodevelopmental challenges (ADHD, Asperger’s, higher-verbal ASD). Some of the functions of video games include:

  1. Provide a sense of predictability and safety in an unpredictable world. If you are prone to anxiety and go throughout the day feeling anxious or unsafe in your environment because you cannot understand your classmate’s intentions or infer meaning from their behaviors then video games can provide a safe haven.  Video games offer a world of predictability, a world that you can control thus a deep emotional connection becomes attributed to video games-they serve as a sense of safety to individuals who feel anxious due to their social learning challenges, overall anxiety or both.
  2. Serve as a substitute for meaningful relationships with similar-age peers. If you have social anxiety around similar-age peers or have difficulty understanding how to cultivate and sustain friendships video games provide a (very superficial) substitute for connection.  It should come as no surprise that many kids refer to people they play online games with as “friends” despite often not knowing anything about these individuals aside from the fact they play the same video game.   The content of the conversation between “gaming friends” is typically like that of strangers, it is small talk based around a common topic.  Kids do not develop a sense of true connection or emotional intimacy through video games.
  3. They provide a sense of accomplishment to individuals who frequently feel frustrated or lack confidence.   Video games provide a quick but fleeting sense of accomplishment to those who often feel unsuccessful in other areas of their life.  While they may struggle in academic subjects or navigating the social world, many individuals with ADHD, Asperger’s or autism can master video games quickly which provides a sense of accomplishment they may not experience in other areas of their life.

Here’s what you can do to help reduce your child’s video game usage while helping to increase their ability to develop resiliency and social competency:

  1. Limit screen time to 40 minutes during the school week and 1 hour on weekends/vacations. Professors Craig Anderson and Doug Gentile created the following guidelines based on their comprehensive research about the detrimental effects of excessive video game use and violent video games:
  • No more than 40 minutes/night on school nights
  • No more than 1 hour/day on weekends/vacations
  1. Keep screens out of bedrooms.  Aside from the fact that electronic screens can disrupt one’s circadian rhythms many kids will be on their devices when their parents believe they are sleeping.  Keeping electronics out of bedrooms and putting them in common areas helps to keep kids from isolating themselves by putting them in greater proximity to the family.  It also provides you with an easier way to supervise your child’s behavior and communication while they’re playing.

3. Have your child participate in semi-structured or unstructured social experience with similar-age peers. Offer a few options, tell them they are going to choose at least one, make it non-negotiable.  Opportunities like scouts, youth group events, theater groups, non-competitive sports help kids to form emotional memories attached to experiences and people.  While they still need to learn skills and strategies to successfully navigate social situations and cultivate friendships the more they are around similar-age peers in loosely structured or unstructured social situations the greater opportunity they will have to increase their resiliency regarding spending time with peers.  Many kids diagnosed with ADHD/Asperger’s/ASD will say “no” to anything unfamiliar.  When parents give into their child’s anxiety or inflexibility they unintentionally deny them the opportunity to build resiliency and create good memories with peers.
Kids who are over-scheduled with structured activities do not have strong chances of increasing their social competency because adults are controlling the environment.  The importance of semi-structured and unstructured social experiences will be discussed in a future article.  Avoid negotiating, debates and arguments about video games. It is best to be very “black & white” regarding screen time.  Keep in mind that unused time should not be rolled over to another day. 
Reducing the amount of time your child spends on video games will provide them with greater opportunities to develop the life skills that are critical for future success-resiliency, emotional regulation and social competency.  It is never too late to reduce their video game usage.  Keep in mind-as long as you are paying the bills for internet, their phone, etc. then you control their access to these devices.  Screen-based devices are a privilege, not an entitlement!
Ryan Wexelblatt, LSW is the Director of Center for ADHD in Bryn Mawr, PA and Summer Travel Program in Lafayette Hill, PA.   
Center for ADHD website
Summer Travel Program website
Get ADHD Answers YouTube Channel

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