As a parent, you may have struggled with your children exceeding their screen time limits just so that they can continue playing Mobile Legends. You may have been frustrated at the many times where your child pleads, “Last game, mum!”
Sometimes, you may even resort to switching off (and plucking out!) the WIFI router so that your child can no longer access the internet to play his games.
All these are common challenges in today’s digital age, says Ray Chua, a principal clinical psychologist who’s been working with gamers since 2009.
Some of the common questions that Ray has been asked include:
- How do I know if my child is addicted to gaming?
How do I stop my child from gaming so much?
In this article, Ray sheds some light on this matter.
Understanding the heart of a gamer
Ray believes in “addressing the problem but loving the child.” For that to happen, one important thing to understand is why gamers even game. What are children really looking for when they game?
There are three reasons:
- A sense of achievement
Many gamers that Ray works with are underperforming in school. He remembers one Primary 6 client who wrote a letter to his mother, telling her that he knew he would not do well for PSLE. But things looked very different in BlackShot, a first-person shooter game in which he excelled in.
No one likes the feeling of constantly failing to meet expectations in every part of their life. Knowing that our children are fuelled by a sense of achievement derived from gaming can help us better empathise with them.
- A sense of connection
Your child may have friends in school, but it’s not only the physical connection that matters, but the emotional connection. As former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wrote in his book Together, “Loneliness is the absence of physical and emotional connection.”
When children play online games with their friends, they may feel a sense of camaraderie with them, and have shared topics of interest to talk about in school.
- A form of escape
Many of the children that Ray sees have problems in their life which they find it challenging to resolve, and gaming is effective as a form of escape.
But when does gaming become a problem?
How can parents tell if their child is addicted?
There are four criteria under the WHO International Classification of Diseases (ICD) for gaming disorder.
Firstly, the child must demonstrate impaired control, such that they are losing control over their gaming behaviour.
The second criterion is an increasing priority over other things in life. “Gaming takes precedence over other interests. For example, it becomes more important than sleep, food, or going to school.”
The third criterion is continuing to game despite negative consequences. They may be failing, or getting into trouble in school. They may be quarrelling daily with their parents over gaming, but they continue to play.
The fourth involves functioning. “Their functioning needs to be affected because there are gamers out there who play a lot, but are still keeping up with their schoolwork and managing their life pretty well,” explained Ray.
These criteria have to exist for a period of at least 12 months, unless the symptoms are severe, for the person to be diagnosed as having a gaming disorder. Of course, parents may not want to wait till their child is displaying problems for a year before seeking help.
What can they do if there are already observable concerns?
When you’ve deposited into their emotional bank account, they will know you’re disciplining them out of love, and not anger.
Prevention is better than cure
One recommendation for parents of younger children is to delay the introduction of games, for as long as possible.
“There are many developmental milestones for a child to reach and build at the ages of preschool or even early primary school.” Delaying the introduction of games can give more time for younger children to hone the ability to delay gratification, allowing them to build a healthier relationship with games. A practical way is to give your child a basic phone, rather than an internet-enabled smartphone, suggested Ray. Alternatively, parents can install parental controls to limit online access.
Experts worldwide agree that early introduction of digital technology may change the psychology of young children in ways that are still unknown. The hit documentary “The Social Dilemma” revealed how persuasive technology may be ‘hooking’ users of social media, and eventually causing addiction.
The same concepts are often applied to game design, with tactics such as requiring gamers to log-in for consecutive days to score streaks. What you may not know is that underlying this ‘game design’ is the strategy to form habit loops.
The relationship is the heart of the matter
Working towards healthy gaming habits requires a strong parent-child relationship.
Ray explained, “This is the period of time where you can deposit into their emotional bank account. You will need it because when the time comes, sooner or later they will start playing games and you will need to instil boundaries and rules and even discipline them. This will tap on this reservoir of relationship that you have built with them over the years. They will know you’re disciplining them out of love, and not anger.”
If your relationship with your child is already strained, regulate yourself first, then seek to understand your child’s motivations.
But what if the relationship is already strained?
If your relationship with your child is already strained, Ray urged parents to first look inwards.
“Regulate yourself, and ensure that you’re not disciplining the child out of anger.”
Sometimes, our children’s behaviour may reflect our own flaws, or even remind us of our past, causing us to feel triggered and upset.
Being aware that this is happening can be the first step towards better managing our frustrations when we see our child playing excessively.
Thereafter, seek to understand your child’s motivations.
“Think about what your child’s motivations are. For example, if your child is using games to escape from the real world, perhaps taking time to listen to your child, and supporting him with tools to deal with the problems in real life can reduce the instances of escape gaming.”
Understanding why the child games, and equipping them with coping mechanisms to deal with life’s challenges can help you make a lasting change in your child’s life.
We are not perfect
Ray’s parting words offer much comfort, “We are all not perfect parents. We are still learning. To become better parents. To become better guides to our kids.” And our children too, are learning to function in what can be a scary and confusing world.
Even as we set boundaries around gaming and device use, let’s keep our relationship with our kids at the centre. With our parent-child relationship secure, perhaps games will no longer be the anchor our children base their identity on.
© 2022 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.
John is a Registered Social Worker who has worked actively with youths since 2017. He was formerly a social worker within a family service centre where he specialised in youth mental health and working with youths-at-risk. He is passionate about building happier workplaces for Gen Zs and writes at liveyoungandwell.com.
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