Dear Dr Mark,
We're very alarmed about our 17-year-old son George. His videogaming has made our family a war zone. His grades in high school are terrible, with many Ds and Fs, even though he is very bright. When we remind him to do his school work, he says he needs his computer and ends up gaming instead. Our efforts to restrict his access have failed. He was able to hack into our router to change settings to allow continued play, and no software holds him back. If we lock up the computers, he turns to his Xbox. If we take that away, he just plays on his iTouch. If we confiscate everything, he is enraged and goes to a friend's house. It's impossible to reason with George--he will listen politely, tell us what we want to hear, and then do exactly as he likes. He also insists that playing games--mostly Runescape and League of Legends--is the best way he has found to connect with his friends, so if we restrict it we are dooming him to isolation.
At school, his teachers offer extra help and have confronted his failure to perform in a very caring way, but he just doesn't "buy in," so there is no progress. Is there anything else we can do? Right now, it's hard to see college or a future for him.
Talking to parents about gaming is one of my greatest challenges. Many are innately suspicious of anything that happens on the internet, especially socializing with people they don't know. Opening skeptical minds to the potential benefits of all this is especially satisfying. When I see young people establishing unique relationships with peers across the country, and even across the world--sharing ideas, hopes, and dreams, or working together on intense and challenging games--it's easy to point out the possibilities for vital and sustaining connections. Parents often hear loud messages about danger and risk, so it's hard for them to accept this new way of engaging.
Gaming poses its own special problems. The engrossing and compelling nature of really good videogames creates a serious rift when players are unable to control or manage play and neglect basic life responsibilities. This certainly doesn't happen with all gamers. I have known some who are able to achieve a balance that allows them to pursue their hobby passionately and continue to be viable in the real world.
This rift can easily boil over into constant conflict as parents struggle to set limits and assert priorities that their children reject. The natural tendency is to become commensurately more restrictive as the problem increases, which in many cases only increases the problem. Teenagers who live to game feel angry, resentful, and bored when deprived of their passion, and this often doesn't lead to an embrace of parental expectations.
In the best case, negotiation and compromise is possible. The teen is willing to tolerate some limits on gaming in return for less hassling, and there is at least some effort to meet basic standards for schoolwork and family participation. Sometimes, this fails due to a factor that isn't readily apparent. There could be learning disabilities or social difficulties that have led the teen to turn away from school, or some other family issue (marital problems, substance abuse) for which the gaming struggle is a cover. If these factors can be identified and dealt with, which sometimes requires counseling, reason may once again rule the day.