If a child is addicted to gaming a wise parent will look to the family climate for possible contributing factors. Are parents and children engaged with one another in interesting conversation and fun activities? Is there a positive atmosphere most of the time where people feel accepted and appreciated? Are children encouraged to participate in meaningful work that helps to keep the family system running smoothly? Do they feel that their contributions make a difference? If the answer to most of these questions is yes it is unlikely that kids will be spending inordinate amounts of time in gaming. If the answer is no, then it wouldn’t be surprising that they would be drawn to other more fulfilling pastimes.
Gaming in all its forms presents a formidable competitor for the time and attention of youngsters and oldsters alike. In case you weren’t clear on just how fascinating gaming can be, take a look at Blog #175 where I interviewed with my 11-year-old grandson. He provided a glimpse into that intriguing world and gave me a much better understanding of its attraction. It is a cheap fix for a lot of what ails us—entertaining, imaginative and challenging and so on. What’s more it is becoming available for children at younger and younger ages. An article in the Deseret News (Vol. 5/No. 13) entitled “How screen-time research is changing and what it means for young kids” cites the ways in which tablets have been integrated into equipment for babies. There are bouncy seats that feature a mirror overhead that can also be used as an iPad holder. Cases are designed for toddlers to hold while protecting the device from baby “drool.” Even potty seats are equipped with a tablet holder.
It is not too hard to tell when a child is spending too much time in gaming. Grades are dropping. Friends in the outside world become less important. The child is spending more and more time alone. It is always tougher to look at our own behavior and assess how we might be adding to the problem. The behavior of any child is always a function of the proclivities of the child and the climate of the family. How do we tell the difference between accessing mobile devices as stimulating and educational resources and using them as a digital baby-sitter? Now I will be the first to admit that I used screen time by way of television to entertain my boys when they were little. Christmas time was the best with all the specials: Charlie Brown and Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman. They watched them all and I was thrilled to have a few moments to myself when they were thus occupied. My grandchildren were toddlers in the era of Baby Einstein and their parents loved it. Now my youngest grandson Sky is four years old and an expert at all sorts of video games. As far as I am concerned the DVD players in the car are a Godsend on long trips. So yes. We all use them. Childcare can be tedious and we all need breaks.
So how do we determine when a child use is excessive? The tougher question is how do we identify our own co-dependent behavior? When do the electronic games turn from a welcome respite for parents to a digital babysitter? Hilarie Cash, PhD and Kim McDaniel, MA in their book called Video Games and Your Kids (Issues Press, 2008.) offer very helpful insights. When we find ourselves making excuses with comments such as the following we may be moving into co-dependent territory:
“At least she is home.”
“I don’t worry about him driving drunk.”
“I just want her to be happy.”
“I want peace and quiet.”
“I am too busy at work.” (p.37)'
Cash and McDaniel go on to say that when there are serious problems in a family such as alcoholism, physical or sexual abuse, hostility between parents or mental illness, parents may have more difficulty setting limits for kids who are abusing screen time. Author Jim Taylor is quoted in the Deseret News article as follows: “Parents must think seriously before using the tablet, TV or smart-phone as a baby sitter.”(p. 10) He states that people allow children screen time not in the child’s best interests but in order to follow their own interests or avoid engaging with their child.
An example comes to mind of a young woman of sixteen whom I will call Vanessa who spends virtually all of her time at home in her room watching TV or playing video games. Her parents despair of her spending so much time alone but on further inquiry I found that both parents, mother and father, eat dinner in front of the TV every night. They provide little in the way of active and engaged family time. Children do what they see their parents doing and Vanessa is wary of attempting to socialize when her role models make no effort in that direction. Other situations might involve a child whose father retires to the basement after dinner and plays hours of video games. Perhaps he himself has been a gamer and has never learned the skills needed to socialize with live persons, particularly children.
Debate about the appropriate amount of screen time for children rages on, beginning with a statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1999 saying that screen time should be avoided for children under two. That recommendation was obsolete almost before it was published once the Apple iPad was introduced, making it possible for children of any age to use mobile technology. A new report from the AAP will be issued in 2016 with relevant data from educators and neuroscientists about the effects of the new and ever-evolving technology. My feeling is that we don’t have to wait for policy statements or advice from experts. If parents suspect a problem and then look honestly at the family milieu they can use their common sense to determine when usage is excessive. Before addressing the problem with their child they need to assess honestly their own behavior as a possible contribution to the problem.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.