Ask the Experts

Game Over: How to Prevent Screen Time Addiction

Computer games can be a good teaching tool, improving eye-hand coordination and teaching sportsmanship. But they can also highly addictive, especially for kids with ADHD. Learn how setting limits and finding alternative activities can help provide balance.

video game console
video game console

Children love computer games, and that’s not always a bad thing. Whether played on a handheld device, a computer, or a television set, the games can provide hours of quiet fun. (That’s one reason parents often rely on them to keep the peace on family vacations.) The games can boost computer skills and improve eye-hand coordination. One 2004 study showed that surgeons who play computer games commit fewer surgical errors than do their non-game-playing counterparts.

Computer games are emotionally “safe.” When a child makes a mistake, no one else knows (unlike the public humiliation of, say, striking out in a real-life baseball game). And because each error made in a computer game helps the player learn the specific action needed to advance the next time, the player gets the satisfaction of steadily improving and ultimately winning.

Big Downsides

But computer games carry some big downsides. Besides being very expensive, many popular games involve graphic sex and violence. Perhaps most worrisome, they can be extremely habit-forming. Any child can become “addicted” to computer games, but kids with ADHD seem to be at particular risk. Many of them have poor social or athletic skills, and this doesn’t matter in the world of computer games. Such games level the playing field for children with ADHD. And kids bothered by distractibility in the real world are capable of intense focus (hyperfocus) while playing. The computer game “trance” is often so deep that the only way to get the player’s attention is to shake her or “get in her face.”

Do you find yourself monitoring how much time your child spends with his Gameboy? Do you constantly urge him to turn off the X Box? Does the desire to play computer games dominate her life? When you insist that the set be turned off, do you get an angry outburst? If so, the time has come to help this child or adolescent (and the whole family).

Finding Alternatives

To make the games less seductive, find ways to minimize your child’s downtime at home, especially those times when he is alone. Maybe your child would be interested in arts and crafts, theater, or movie-making. Maybe a social-skills group would be a good idea. Maybe he could join a youth group at your church, synagogue, or mosque.

If she has trouble with a particular sport because of poor motor skills, or has difficulty understanding the rules or strategies, look for another sport that might be more accommodating — for example, martial arts, bowling, or swimming. Help your child find some activity that he likes and a place where he can do it.

Setting Limits

Children with ADHD often lack the “internal controls” needed to regulate how much time they spend playing computer games. It’s up to parents to rein in the use of the games.

The first step is often the hardest: Both parents must agree on a set of rules. How much time may be spent playing the games on school nights? Must homework be done first? Chores? How much time may be spent on a weekend day? Which games are taboo, and which are OK? If the child plays Internet-based games, which sites are acceptable?

Once parents agree, sit down with your child and discuss the rules. Make it clear which rules are negotiable and which are not. Then announce that the rules start right now. Be sure you can enforce the rules. For example, if your child is allowed to spend 30 minutes at computer games on school nights – and only after homework and chores are done – the game and game controls must be physically unavailable when she gets home from school.

If games involve a computer or a television set, find a way to secure the system until its use is permitted. When the 30 minutes of playing are up, retake the controls. If she balks, she loses the privilege to play the game the following day. If you come into her bedroom and find her playing the game under the covers, she might lose the privilege for several days.

Avoiding Confrontations

Give warning times: “You have 15 more minutes… You now have 10 minutes … There are only five minutes left.” A timer that is visible to the child can be helpful. When the buzzer rings, say, “I know you need to reach a point where you can save the game. If you need a few more minutes, I will wait here and let you have them.”

If he continues to play despite your step-by-step warnings, do not shout or grab the game or disconnect the power. Calmly remind him of the rules, then announce that for each minute he continues to play, one minute will be subtracted from the time allowed the next day (or days). Once you get the game back, lock it up. When he finally regains the privilege to play, say, “Would you like to try again to follow the family rules?”

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