I’m all for kids having hobbies. When children find something they are passionate about, it gives them an outlet for their excitement and a place to dream — experiences that are often discouraged in a traditional classroom. However, some hobbies, like online gaming, have unintended, negative consequences.
When my son turned 8, he discovered a love for playing video games. At the time it seemed innocent, cute even, and my husband and I gladly supported his new interest. Within a year of playing, my son had the newest gaming set — a PlayStation — and a host of used game discs courtesy of the local gaming store.
Over the next five years, his tastes in games changed, moving from a PS3 to the Xbox, and later to computer games. He scrimped and saved his allowance, buying himself the latest tech gear, like a color-changing mouse, a headset and microphone, and something called “exp” which he explained was like money in the virtual world he played. Soon he was speaking a language I couldn’t understand.
He’d say things like: “I’m AFK right now but I’ll brb, noob.”
Or: “Grind this mob till you reach level 20!”
And even: “Mid lane ping MIA, it doesn’t help that you’re feeding your midlaner.”
While I was happy my son seemed to have friends he enjoyed playing with, I felt unable to connect with his passion for playing. Even listening to him became a test of patience, since to me, it all sounded like Latin. I also noticed something else was happening -— every time my son was gaming, he’d yell at the other players.
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“What the heck?!” he’d scream at the computer screen. “Stop playing like an idiot!”
I’d tell him to calm down, that it was only a game meant for fun, but my words did little to calm his temper. That aggression manifested outside gaming, such as when he talked to his little brother.
“Stop being such a noob,” he’d taunt. Those attitude mishaps often got him restricted from his games.
As the years went on, I noticed my son tried to play his online games every free moment he had. Soon enough I had to enforce game-time rules: only after homework and chores were completed, and when that didn’t stick, only on weekends. His gaming became a thorn in my side, a passion that soon bloomed into an addiction; and since he had few other interests, it was hard to deter him from playing.
I was genuinely worried about my son’s welfare. His temper was at an all-time high, his patience disturbingly low, and his ability to slip into the mean gamer attitude was happening with more frightening frequency, even when he wasn’t playing.
On several occasions, he would snap at any one of us for what seemed like nothing at all. I couldn’t understand his attitude shift; and then, one night when I awoke to get a drink of water, I heard my son laughing in his room. I lingered by his door and listened, and heard the recognizable sounds of him gaming. That night I discovered my son had been sneaking his games after everyone had gone to bed, and was playing through the night — even on school nights. I was pissed and my son was apologetic. I knew something had to change.
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Researchers have found that online gaming is actually beneficial to children, much in the same way other forms of imaginative play are. While the study showed online gaming “presents opportunities for identity development as well as cognitive and social challenges,” it doesn’t necessarily delve into the larger issue of addictive game playing, and how addiction can change our children’s personalities.
Psychologists are starting to see a trend in video-gaming addiction, and it seems to be more prevalent in males. In fact, “Internet Gaming Disorder” is now listed in the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a “condition for further study.”
Symptoms of an Internet gaming disorder are similar to those of drug addiction and include irritability, sadness, a loss of interest in other activities, deception, using the gaming as an escape from reality and risking home, school and work life just to play.
While some parents complain about violence, immorality or online predators, another concern has to be the child’s ability to balance their love of gaming with real-life responsibilities. When playing becomes their primary and even sole focus in life, an intervention needs to happen — fast.
When all my efforts to curb my son’s excessive game playing were thwarted, I took action and cut his access to gaming completely by changing our Wi-Fi password and, later, removing the power cable from his computer.
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A month after he lost his ability to game online, he told me something I’d never known.
“I’ve always wanted to be awesome at something,” he explained. “I wanted to be a great fighter, or a great swordsman. Just something that would set me apart from other people. In gaming, I can do that. In the real world — I’m just not as cool.”
I hugged my son and spent a long time telling him all the ways that he is amazing. I also encouraged him to try some of those activities he idolized in real life. Martial arts, even jousting were ways he could gain skills and self-confidence.
For now, I’m just grateful that we’ve recognized the real danger of the gamer lifestyle: one of incessant playing and addictive tendencies. Not every child who plays will become addicted, but it’s something we as parents need to understand and know how to handle when the passion for gaming becomes an unhealthy obsession.
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