Q: My 10 year old son spends most of his time in his room, playing video games. It’s a battle to get him to do homework, or even to come out and socialize. When we try taking away his console, he mopes around all day. He never used to be like this. How can I get my son back?
A: The fact is, video games are interesting. They can be much more engaging than TV shows and books, as the player takes an active role in creating the story. They can be social as well, and provide a way for people to partake in the same adventures together.
But they have many elements that can make them addictive as well. As people progress in games, it provides a sense of accomplishment. Often, the main protagonist of the game is someone special, skilled, and strong. Often, other characters in the game tell you how special you are, what a hero you are, and how you are the only one who can save the day. That kind of constant positive reinforcement, combined with the active engagement in creating a narrative, is quite captivating.
I’ve seen a lot of video game addiction, and it doesn’t end up being pretty. Sometimes kids can let real-life friendships and relationships fail in favor of their online ones, and you already know the effect it can have on schooling. I’ve seen college students lose their scholarships over gaming addictions, seen people go weeks without showering…. it’s bad. So it’s important to help your son develop a healthy relationship with technology before bad habits get too entrenched. It’s a lot easier to help a 10-year old with this than a 17 year old—trust me.
What is your son’s schedule like? After he gets home from school, does he have any other scheduled activities? Or does he have the rest of the afternoon to himself, to basically do homework and then go to bed? Are there any family activities going on that could interest him?
If he has the entire afternoon open, that is likely the root of the problem. When you have free time and all your responsibilities are taken care of, your first inclination would be to devote it to your hobbies, right? The problem is that his main hobby is addicting. So for starters, he shouldn’t be allowed to game until his other responsibilities are actually taken care of. Especially since many games these days don’t have a specific “start point” and “end point,” he probably doesn’t have the self-control to stop when it’s time to do his homework. Let him unwind in some other way before starting his homework, though, if he needs to.
However, holding off the games alone won’t be enough. If you just take away his console until his tasks are done, he’ll be resentful about finishing his homework. He may rush through it to get his console back faster. He might go on strike, and refuse to do homework at all if he’s stubborn.
The best solution will be to schedule him other things to do. Starting a sport can work wonders on a pre-teen attitude. People who exercise regularly generally have more energy, have better sleep habits, have more positive attitudes, and are healthier in general than those who don’t. If you can, try to get him involved in a sport with other kids his age. Kids that age are trying to forge an identity, and having an athletic background can become a positive part of it.
If that isn’t an option, family exercise is also wonderful. If you can go biking with your son after school, go for a jog together, go hiking at a local park, go swimming, go rollerblading, etc. it will provide valuable bonding time in addition to improving his health and attitude.
In addition to getting him exercising somehow, get him involved in other classes and hobbies. Sign him up for an art or music class, a boy scouts troupe, a maker class, or a robotics camp. Since he already likes video games, he might be interested in tabletop board games- many board game and comic shops have live board game sessions where you can meet local people your age to play with.
If you or the rest of the family have any hobbies, involve him in them. If grandpa likes woodworking, have them build something together. If dad likes cars, teach him how to change the oil. Practice cooking together, sewing a patch in an old pair of jeans, servicing the bike, maintaining the aquarium, and fixing a computer together. Like exercising together, having joint family activities will help build your relationship and positive influence with your son.
One activity that may particularly interest him is learning to program. It’s a valuable skill in today’s job market, and learning game design can be a useful offshoot of that. He can use his passion for the hobby to learn how it’s made, and gain a valuable academic skill in the meantime. Kids often rebel if they feel like a parent “absolutely does not want them doing something” and redirecting his energy to programming may be a gentle way to acknowledge and respect his interests without flat-out banning them.
Sometimes kids need to go cold turkey from gaming. Sometimes they will self-limit their extra game time if they are tired from other activities. You’ll have to discern which is best for your son. But overall, by filling his day with other social activities, you take care of the main problem—that gaming was previously the most interesting thing he had to do all day. And by helping him develop these new social interests, he will become a more well-rounded and well-adjusted teenager.