Joey admitted that he lost interest in his favorite sport. Already a state champion with prospects to be a national star, each day he didn’t practice he was throwing away that possibility. His work also suffered. Where he once thrived and was revered for his hard work, he now was barely keeping it together and on the verge of failure. His relationships deteriorated as well. He lost friendships and was at odds with the people he said he loved the most.
But there was one area of his life that was thriving. Every day and sometimes well into the night, Joey would play video games. It started off with just a few games but then quickly escalated into more. He made an agreement with his family not to play any games that were rated R, had nudity, or had live chats. But now he was doing just that and hiding it. When he played, he felt powerful, excited, energized and confident in his fantasy worlds. In the real world, he felt anxious, depressed, overwhelmed, and insignificant.
Looking back on the transformation over the last few months, Joey agreed that something needed to change. So, he committed to not playing for 30 days. The first few days he was just fine but then his anxiety grew and quickly turned into anger. Within a week, Joey was experiencing increased agitation and anxiety, outbursts, insomnia, sweating, difficulty concentrating, restlessness, mood swings, and nausea. His discomfort was so intense that he thought he was going crazy.
Joey is only 10 years old.
What happened? Joey was experiencing dopamine withdraw which is like the opioid withdraw such as heroin or morphine. External drugs like cocaine or alcohol are taken, absorbed into the body, and then the physical and neurological benefits are realized internally. The “high” or feeling of euphoria comes from both the substance and the chemicals of pleasure that is naturally released in the brain. Whereas an internal drug like serotonin or adrenaline is release through an activity or fantasy. There is no removal of an external substance to stop the addictive pattern. There is only a behavioral change. This makes addiction to dopamine or other internal chemicals much harder to overcome.
Why is it harder? Several behaviors can cause the release of the pleasure-seeking chemical in the brain subsequently flooding the body. In Joey’s case, it was the trophies he acquired from playing video games. He would play obsessively until he reached the next level, sometimes losing track of time and playing for several hours without stopping. When he achieved his goal, dopamine would be released in his brain, he would feel good about himself and want to play even more. The more he played, the more dopamine was released, and the better he felt. In order to get the same level of dopamine rush, Joey increased the intensity and type of games to mature levels well beyond his age. Most of these he obtained through his online “friends”.
Why is this a problem? Just like some people can drink alcohol and never become an alcoholic, others cannot even look at it without triggering an addictive response. The same is true for nearly every addictive substance including the chemicals released in the brain. The release of adrenaline after a run is referred to as a “runner’s high” because it does the same thing. The problem is that addiction results in an obsessive pattern of being unable to stop, a desire to continue using despite any consequences, and creates negligence of social and work obligations. Joey was experiencing all of this and he is only 10 years old. Because his brain is still developing, this addictive pattern is being weaved at a fundamental level. It is no different than if Joey was addicted to alcohol or heroin. The consequences are the same.
Why is this not talked about more? Just like the cigarette companies denied for decades that nicotine was addictive, so the video game industry has done the same thing. When I was a kid, there were commercials on TV advertising cigarettes and making them attractive for kids. The cigarette companies knew that if they could get a child addicted to nicotine, they were more likely to be lifelong users. And so it is with the video game industry in today’s culture. By making video games designed for kids and marketing them to parents and schools, this industry knows they will make lifelong users. Better yet for them, just like any other addictive substance, the more a person uses, the more they want, and the more they buy.
What is the worst that can happen? Park Maitland, Columbine, and Sandy Hook. Each of these killers played video games to prepare for their rampage at the schools. It is speculated that they did this to anesthetize themselves so they could kill others without any regard for the lives they were destroying. There are many other examples such as Anders Breivik who took the lives of 69 young adults at a youth came in Norway in 2011. He was an avid player of World of Warcraft and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. He admitted to using the games to relax and as a training simulator.
What can be done? As with any addiction, education and awareness are the keys to begin a dialogue with a person that might be addicted. Admission from the addict is essential. No progress can be made without an acknowledgment that there is a problem. Counseling, support groups, and abstaining from the substance are all next steps. It is imperative that the process is started sooner rather than later as the longer a person is addicted, the harder it becomes to stop. Also, the earlier in life a person is addicted, the more likely it is that this will be a lifelong struggle.
What if I’m a parent? Here are a couple of tips.
- Check the ratings on all the games including the ones online. Make sure your child is not playing a game with a mature rating or one that is above their age.
- Watch your child play. Don’t leave the room. A video game is not a babysitter.
- Most of the games have online chats. This needs to be blocked for your child, they should not be chatting with anyone. This might seem harsh, but some kids have been talked into doing pornography as the result of a gaming connection. Predators and Pedophiles love this environment.
- Only allow your child to play for 20 minutes at a time before taking a 10-minute outdoor break. This stops the dopamine rush, improves eye strain, and teaches self-control.
- No video games on school nights with no exception.
- Arrange play dates that don’t involve video games, this reduces the isolation.
- Talk openly about your concerns with your child. The more they resist the larger the problem you might already have.
- Turn off the internet at night so your child can’t play after you have gone asleep.
- Don’t allow a child to play video games unsupervised at a friend’s house. Different parents have different rules.
- Talk to a counselor. Talk to the parents of your child’s friends. Talk to the school. The more discussion, the more awareness.
Joey made it through the 30 days and agreed to get rid of most of his video games. He now is back to playing his favorite sport, engaging with his friends, and his grades have dramatically improved. His parents feel like they have their son again.