My son is addicted to computer games, what can I do?
It is not uncommon for boys or young men to spend all day, and sometimes all night, playing computer games in their bedroom without any real or meaningful interaction with the social world outside. Such solitary behaviour, with disconnection from peers in the real world, can lead to a low quality of life with associated physical and mental health problems.
Your son might be depressed, but not necessarily, his behaviour might be because of a combination of the normal brain changes that happen during adolescence coupled with the release of dopamine that happens during any addiction. During adolescence there are massive brain changes, particularly with increased activity in the reward circuitry, but the pre-frontal cortex – the thinking part of the brain - is the last to develop. This is why boys, in particular, undertake risky behaviour and often make bad decisions. Playing video games for a long time releases lots of dopamine so they get the ‘high’, but because of the under-developed pre-frontal cortex in all adolescents, and because of the flood of dopamine, they can show poor judgement in their life choices. Just like with any addiction they don’t know when to stop, but they are also more vulnerable because of an already underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex.
It might sound strange, but people can have an intimate connection with the devices that keep them addicted. Just like gamblers form an intimate relationship with the machines in the bookie shops, gamers also seem to form intimate connections with the apparatus of gaming, such as their console and their computer. This form of engagement can be a means of retreating from emotional pain, whether due to separations, bereavement, bullying, identity crisis or a fear of the future. The online world of gaming can offer some comfort to communicate in the virtual world without the risks, or pressure, of having to interact face to face in the social world.
You could try and negotiate with him limits around the amount of time he spends at gaming. A more immediate step could be to try and establish more regular “family time” when you undertake activities as a unit and perhaps consider short-term consequences for not participating. However, in order to interact with the social environment more meaningfully he will need to acquire confidence and social skills. He will also need to address the reasons why he has retreated to his private world. This might require psychological therapy at some point to help him to move on from his way of coping with his difficult feelings and emotions.
Social avoidance can result from anxiety about social cues and how to respond when in company. The interactions with peers in the social world can feel threatening given the competition for status and attention and, as a consequence, social anxiety and avoidance can become his coping strategies. Psychological therapy can provide a safe and confidential space in order for him to explore his past hurts, possible traumas, and his fears of engagement with the outside world.
There may also be complex family dynamics at play. Sons can internalise a sense of not being the son their father or mother wanted them to be. There is an abundance of research that shows how sons of absent, overly critical and hostile fathers are more likely to have emotional issues, such as low self-esteem and low self-worth. In addition they are prone to experience mental health difficulties such as anxiety and depression.
Another possible influence might be that his father is very successful in a material sense, and he feels like he could never measure up. Or his mother has been over protective, which may have restricted his ability to take risks in his life. The dangers of having a parent who is always right there, are that a child invariably looks to that parent for answers instead of figuring things out for themselves.
As a parent, it is important not to be over protective in providing a safe haven at home. It is perfectly natural that you will want to protect him, and you are only doing what feels right and appropriate, but what he might need is a push into the outside world. Getting a job will help him to build his confidence, give him purpose and will also help him to learn new skills.
One other way of increasing engagement with the social world would be involvement with like-minded peers such as at clubs for gamers. That way he will be engaging in the outside world but crucially will feel confident in the social interactions, given his set of skills in that community. You can find out more about such meetings at videogame.meetup.com. He clearly has untapped potential and qualities - that is clear from his skills in gaming - and the task is to help him to form meaningful connections in the social world so that he can express his creativity more widely.
Counselling and psychotherapy can help him by offering a supportive and private space to share his anxieties and fears so that he can face the challenge of more meaningful engagement with the outside world. For it to be successful, however, it is best if the idea to start the therapy comes from him. That way he will have begun the process of empowering himself back into the social world and will have provided a positive start to his therapy.
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About Noel Bell
Noel Bell is a counsellor/psychotherapist based in London who has spent the past 20 years exploring and studying personal growth, recovery from addictions and inner transformation. Noel draws upon the most effective tools and techniques from the psychodynamic, cognitive behavioural (CBT), humanist, existential and transpersonal schools.