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Curbing the teen gaming obsession - a parent's guide

A St. Albert parent recently expressed concern that her teenage son was spending too much time playing video games.

A St. Albert parent recently expressed concern that her teenage son was spending too much time playing video games. Her trepidation is shared by many parents walking the fine line between supporting a passion for video games and urging the need for homework, sleep, and, most importantly, balance in life.

Prior to curbing the enthusiasm for video games, you’ll need to recognize the why behind the obsession. It’s surprisingly simple: video games allow a person to feel successful in a relatively risk-free, imaginative environment where the player has complete control. For those who play online, video games also provide acceptance without the pressures of larger social situations, like school. Then there’s the empowering effect of embracing an identity as a gamer. You can start to see why teens embrace video games more so than reading, studying, or even television.

However, your instincts as a parent should always supersede the needs your teenager is placating through excessive gaming. If alarm bells are ringing, there’s a reason. A good one. Having a son or daughter play for hours on end each night can be harmful.

Though recent studies report positive benefits of playing video games, from stronger reflexes to improved visual acuity, these studies occur under highly controlled circumstances, with relatively short bouts of game time. Studies on video games rarely reflect the amount of time certain teens actually spend playing. In the scientific world, 50 minutes of game time is common, while anything beyond a four-hour stint is excessive. In a gamer’s world, 50 minutes is a warm-up, four hours is standard and an eight-hour session seems like sheer bliss.

And for every study that demonstrates a benefit of video games, there are at least three that show overuse is linked to disrupted sleep patterns, depression and aggression in teens. Is it video games themselves that cause this, or would we see the same negatives doing any activity to excess? It’s irrelevant as the real question is about balance.

And the answer doesn’t lie in simply shutting off the Xbox, taking away the cellphone, or hiding the Nintendo DS charger. Remember the basic needs of most teens — safety, control, acceptance. Gaming is simply a subconscious manifestation of these powerful needs.

So where to start? Begin by internalizing and truly understanding the why behind the obsession: open the dialogue, listen, be understanding, create links to your own life without launching into a lecture. It’s tough, I know.

More than anything, this process is not a sit-down-at-the-kitchen-table type of talk you’ll have in one night. It will take time, patience and, above all, persistence as you are bound to meet a great deal of resistance. Again, think about the need. If someone restricted your passion, your source of identity and success, wouldn’t you be a little resistant too? Keep at it; you’ll eventually find your teen much more open to discussing gaming.

Once the connection is made, the gamer needs to be a part of all aspects of the decision-making process, from when — or where — the first dialogue takes place, right through to setting up a system that is based on balance, understanding and mutual respect.