Living in a virtual world: teenage problematic gaming
Written by Mike Giresi,
in Section Behavioral Health
From Frogger to Fortnite, we’ve leveled up significantly since video games first started capturing the attention of young people. In June 2018, the World Health Organization declared gaming, including video gaming and internet gaming, a disorder, and while some applauded the move, others criticized it.
Whether it’s too much time spent indoors, not enough time spent on homework or chores, or what looks like mindless staring at a screen, the parents we’ve spoken to have struggled to accept their child’s preoccupation with gaming.
Some have argued that video games are problematic because they diminish a child’s ability to concentrate, others claim the games desensitize children to violence, and many want to draw a line between video games and childhood obesity.
While the announcement made by the World Health Organization has stoked controversy surrounding the problematic nature of gaming, it has also effectively underlined that where gaming is problematic, it’s symptomatic of a much more serious underlying issue.
So what makes gaming problematic?
Gaming is considered problematic or disordered if a child isn’t able to control the amount of time he or she spends on video games; if they put gaming before responsibilities at home, homework, time with their friends, team sports or hobbies, and even eating and sleeping; and if they continue to play video games or play them more despite experiencing fallout like the loss of friendships, poor grades, fighting with their parents, and suffering health.
We’ve written previously that when a child exhibits problematic behavior, while it’s normal to address the behavior first, it’s also vital to look at what underlying dynamics are driving these behaviors.
We want to caution parents against jumping to a conclusion about their child’s gaming habits and what they signify. Not all children who immerse themselves in video games are struggling with their mental health, and not all children who are struggling with mental health will use video games to cope.
Video games and gaming aren’t inherently problematic. What can be problematic is your child’s relationship to and experience of gaming—specifically if it gives them something they aren’t getting from their school life, social life, or home life. A child who stays up late a few nights in a row doesn’t necessarily have an issue with problematic gaming; however a child who experiences significant weight loss or gain, who pulls back from friends, sports, and school, or who lashes out angrily when gaming time is interrupted could be experiencing a problematic relationship to gaming.
The correlation between dissociation and problematic gaming
There is a correlation between problematic gaming and maladaptive dissociative processes—a recent systematic review of 19 different peer-reviewed studies have demonstrated that gaming is a coping mechanism some children use to escape deeply painful internal states.
Dissociation is a child’s disconnection from the present moment in a variety of different ways. The thousand yard stare, when your child is there in body but his mind is far away, is more than a mental process—it’s a physiological process too. When we see kids zoning out, they’re cutting themselves off from their emotional experience, or even completely leaving their body during an overwhelming event.
There’s a strong correlation between children who rely on dissociation as a coping mechanism and problematic gaming. Dissociation begins as an unconscious means of self-protection early in life—children dissociate to shield themselves from overwhelming feelings of threat and helplessness—and this becomes their primary coping mechanism as they get older. As children learn how effective dissociation can be for dealing with stress, fear, and conflict, it’s a tactic they return to more frequently.
When children dissociate, beginning in the earliest stages of their development, this process of disconnecting from themselves and others goes to the root of their personality and who they see themselves as. Children who dissociate are disconnected from their feelings and not able to build deep and meaningful relationships with other people, or to experience intimacy or vulnerability. In fact, it becomes a child’s defining response when faced with connection.
When dissociation becomes a source of pain, problematic gaming is a natural next step
Over time, dissociation, once meant to shield a child from pain, becomes painful too. What began as a buffer from a painful or harmful environment keeps them rooted in loneliness and isolation. As teenagers and young adults, this innate fear of connection and resulting dissociation becomes their primary source of pain—and the primary barrier to them getting what they want out of life. Children and adolescents who dissociate want very badly to connect with others but feel completely overwhelmed by the prospect of connecting.
Problematic gaming becomes a coping mechanism for dealing with the pain associated with living a life while reliant on dissociation.
“A virtual world that is used as a source of enjoyment and relaxation can become a place where the individual can become absorbed as a way of escaping from personal and interpersonal insecurities, life difficulties, traumatic experiences, negative feelings…”
(Guglielmucci, F., Monti, M., Franzoi, I.G. et al. Curr Addict Rep (2019) 6: 1. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40429-019-0237-z)
A child’s experience of gaming is one of belonging and purpose
Many of the problematic gaming clients we help at Family First Adolescent Services describe feeling a true sense of belonging for the first time in their lives in the virtual world of video games. They experience euphoria and relaxation, and an absence of pressure or stress. They can recreate their identity, building a version of themselves who they like and respect, and who they believe others will also like and respect.
In gaming they can finally possess all the things they believe they can’t access in the real world like strength, creativity, assertiveness, and feelings of self-worth and purpose. With rankings, scores and statistics all compiled in real time, they have a sense of pride in being able to measure themselves in a context where they feel some agency.
Parents hope their children find purpose in academic performance and life aspirations; these teens find purpose in building a false identity that resides in this virtual world. In the world of video games, connecting with themselves—via the persona they create—and with others comes without the fear and threat of the real world. Here they are not lonely or alone, here they can achieve their goals and objectives, here they can be part of a team and even be a leader on that team.
A compassionate view of gaming
Watching your child self-sabotage and not show up for life, knowing that they do this despite wanting to be part of life, is painful for a parent to watch. To help your child, parents need to begin with a baseline of understanding—of both their child and their child’s gaming—to inform a compassionate perspective.
When you’re concerned that your child’s immersion in video games is harming his social or academic life, it’s a good idea to begin an open dialogue with your child to see what they believe they are getting out of it for themselves. Are they aware of the negative consequences they might be experiencing from gaming? Are they willing or able to have a self-reflective conversation about it?
Our recent article, Building a Bridge to your Teen Through Validation, outlines four key steps parents can take to have a conversation that puts their child at ease and encourages them to open up.
The result of an open and non-threatening conversation with your child could reveal that, in terms of his or her mental health, everything is okay. Your child might show you that his social group plays the same game together, but at their own houses on their own consoles or computers, and that they’re talking and connected to each other the whole time. In this case, your child might benefit from some clearer boundaries from you about how much time is enough, and that video games should only come after home work, chores, or other responsibilities are completed.
On the other hand, if you notice significant changes in weight, if your child has pulled back completely from their social or academic life, or if they are lashing out at home—especially in the context of gaming—we recommend you seek out immediate help. A local outpatient therapy service can evaluate your child’s state and refer you to treatment resources. You can also call us. Our team is trained to evaluate and assess the appropriate level of care for your child, and we can suggest local treatment resources for your family or admit your child to our residential program.
The world keeps changing, and new technologies are helping to blaze our path into the future. But when it comes to communicating with your children, it’s best to go back to the basics of genuine curiosity, acceptance, support and validation.