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How to Cultivate Healthy Gaming Habits

Updated: Feb 26

Do you worry about how your teenager’s gaming might affect them? What can you do over the next few weeks?

A recent study followed 385 gamers for 6 years from adolescence into early adulthood. The researchers (from Utah and Australia) measured the US teenagers' pathological gaming symptoms over time based on a video game addiction scale. This scale included questions such as “do you become restless or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop playing video games?” They also monitored the teens’ mental health, social tendencies, shyness, and delinquency behaviours which were fairly similar at the start of the study regardless of the teens gaming behaviour.

Modelling analyses uncovered three distinct groups of gamers with varying trajectories of gaming symptoms: pathological, moderate, and healthy.  Seventy percent of participants showed healthy levels of game use. They exhibited a small spike in pathological gaming symptoms at about 17 years of age and then continued to decrease back to negligible levels thereafter. About 10% (pathological gamers) showed a sharp increase in their already high symptoms as they left their teen years, the main concerns being depression and aggression. They also displayed higher levels of anxiety and unhealthy mobile phone habits than the healthy group at the age of 20. The final, moderate, group (about 18%) started with moderate symptoms that did not change over time.

As parents, we can pay attention to what happened to the moderate and pathological group (30% of the players). Supporting past research, males were at higher risk of developing pathological gaming symptoms. As young adults, these pathological gamers were less likely to co-operate or make an effort to be social when given the opportunity than the other two groups. It seems that ‘pro social behaviours’ help protect a teenager from pathological gaming. By the end of the six years the moderate and pathological gamers were more aggressive and more likely to be depressed than those who had started with healthy gaming h­abits. 

Take away for parents

We can look at the positives in this study. Depression and aggression was a concern for only some gamers. In Australia, during COVID, gaming hours increased as families relaxed limits and we can draw on research in which parents describe a reduced ability for children to calm themselves, remain curious and complete tasks with increasing hours online (see figure here showing how ability to stay calm is effected from earlier research).

To combat this join your child’s games and take an interest in how their current online activities work. This will build your relationship and allow you to look for the following signs:

 1.  Non relaxed use of games and playing in a very intense way. Listen to your child’s conversation and look at their body language while they are playing – how relaxed or intense do they appear?

2.  Difficulty detaching from a game. Is your child unreasonable about switching a game off in order to prioritise family meals, bedtime and other normal life demands?

3.   Failing to help at home. While this is normal for teenagers, prioritising chores and helping behaviour are “pro social” behaviours. They should be part of a family routine and potentially reduce the risk of pathological gaming long term.

What can you do? 

1. Try to prioritise meal times together with no screens near anyone’s finger tips (including yours!) It is valuable for children to see parents prioritising them. Put phones on silent and out of the room. This simple step may have slipped over the past few months.

2. Look out for your child drawing all their confidence from game use. You will hear this if you play a game with them: “I’m so good at this” “I’m better than my friends” “At least this is something I can do well at". If you think they have lost touch with areas of skill they had previously developed, take the next month to focus and pull them back.

3. Provide consistent limits and expect them to move away from a game after 45 minutes, to have an hour of activity, prior to resuming with their friends, or consider going cold turkey on gaming for a few days to stop the "if… then" cycle that wears parents down. If you choose to go ‘cold turkey’, provide some warning to your child and be present when your child decides they need you (for example, a game during the day; or a hug and chat late at night). Walk away from arguments to manage yourself (see an earlier blog).



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