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July 18, 2023

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 127

Encore: How Much Gaming is Too Much?

Episode 127

What are the signs of a gaming addiction? It’s easy in the summer to have lax rules and allow more gaming and screen time. But when does gaming cross the line into being too much? A mom writes in worried about her son who used gaming to connect with friends during the pandemic but now games alone while his friends spend time together in person. Dr. Lisa unpacks the research on gaming hazards and addiction, as well as some unexpected benefits of gaming. Reena gets answers to key questions: When is it time to worry that a kid is spending too much time gaming? And what should parents do?

July 18, 2023 | 28 min

Transcript | Encore: How Much Gaming is Too Much?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 127: Encore: How Much Gaming is Too Much?

The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

The following transcript has been automatically generated by an AI system and should be used for informational purposes only. We cannot guarantee the accuracy, completeness, or timeliness of the information provided.

——

Reena Ninan
You were the one during the pandemic, the start of the pandemic who got me to pay full price on something which I never pay full price on, you know, it was an Xbox. You said to me, this is a way for boys sometimes to stay socially connected. I should fight it. It’s not Don’t be so anti gaming. But we got a letter talking about when do you know it’s too much, Lisa?

Lisa Damour
Yeah, this was a heck of a lot, Reena.

Reena Ninan
Should I get right into it? It’s really good.

Lisa Damour
Let’s just do it. And again, I know I say this every week. Oh my gosh, the letters we get. They are just they’re brilliant letter.

Reena Ninan
Yeah. And it touches on so many issues. This one says Dear Dr. Lisa, my son is 13 and spends most of his time gaming in his room he gets good grades, generally turns in assignments on time stays out of trouble play seasonal sports piano, learns Mandarin, and is involved in his school’s leadership. However, after school and on weekends, instead of running around hanging out with friends or inviting friends over, he chooses to sit in his room and spend the time gaming on his computer. He can literally spend all day gaming in his room, except for when he needs to come and join us for meals. I understand the need for it during COVID. His kids needed to isolate and could socialize with each other online. But now, his friends have all moved on to being together in person, instead of spending the time playing together on their screens. Am I missing the obvious, and that he’s developed an unhealthy addiction. I also worry that while his peers are out and about socializing with each other, my child will continue to be stunted socially and not learn how to appropriately interact with peers and adults. My other worry is that he lacks motivation to find another and okay, I know this is judging a more worthwhile passion. Thank you again for your advice.

This is a lot that the mom is sort of putting out there but amazing that she’s tuned in to this.

Lisa Damour
Yes. And she gives us such helpful detail to start to really figure out if there’s grounds for concern and what they would be. Because she answered so many questions that I would have. I mean, like I think, you know, right out of the gate, you know, I would be thinking, well, you know, how is he functioning at school? And is he turning stuff in? Is he doing other things? Right? I mean, you all of those questions are answered down here. Yeah, she says he’s do it. It helps us home it. Yeah, he’s kids doing a lot of stuff. Yeah. So what I mean, it sounds like he’s a good kid. So why would you worry, Lisa?

It does sound like he’s a good kid. Right? And I totally get it why this month? Like, I don’t know, if I should be concerned, especially in this landscape, you have things. So here’s what we know from the research, right? Like, you know, I was like, I’m just, I’m just gonna go with what we know from the research. There are studies showing cluding a very new study from Oxford. The kids can do all lie gaming, like spend a lot of time on gaming. And we don’t actually have evidence that that in and of itself harms their well being. Like, I just I just want to say that and, and I think right, it’s always so interesting to me when you want the research to say something it doesn’t say, right? I was like, you know, I look at this research. And I’m like, I want there to be research that says like, if your kid crosses this particular threshold of more than three hours a day like their brain is going to turn to JellO. We don’t have that kind of research. I mean, what we really do see is that there’s some kids who get themselves into trouble with gaming and that there is such a thing as an addiction, and we should talk that through. But if you just go straight by the data, not by what we wanted to say not by our opinions on it, kids can play a lot of video games. aims without obvious evidence of harm.

Reena Ninan
Okay, that’s good to know. Because I think most parents know that. I guess the question is exactly what the mom raises is. So when do you determine How worried should this mom be? How much gaming is too much? When do you cut it off?

Lisa Damour
Okay, so the question of whether there’s such a thing as a gaming addiction is a really interesting question. And that’s also something that we’ve spent real time on in the clinical and research literature. And part of the issue is that, I think appropriately, so psychologists get very, very prickly about the using terms in an elastic way, right? Like, you know, we could say there’s a social media addiction, there’s a gaming addiction, there’s a you know, like, we’re always like, waiting, we have a whole literature and understanding of what addiction is, like, let’s not rush to use this word everywhere all the time. But that said, there is increasing consensus on what an addiction to gaming looks like. And I’ll tell you exactly what it is because I think this parent is asking, does make it have an addiction, and here’s how you would know. So an addiction, and this actually very much matches how we think about it with substances and other things, is sort of a two part thing. One is, the term we use is compulsive use. And the best way to understand that, in terms of what it looks like in your family is cannot stop. Right? Anytime I use, I think I see the word compulsive on the page of one of my clinical journals, I’m like, Yes, it’s the can’t stop feeling right, like I am doing this thing, and I cannot stop doing it. That’s what compulsive means. So if you have a kid where you’re like, you need to get off and they are like, I can’t write and like kids will tell you, they can’t. But they may be super grumpy and get off. But if you have a kid where it is like, oh, ugly, when it is time for them to stop, and they are really, really have this sense of like they cannot stop the you know, there’s they’re stopping is a huge blow up in your home, like, flag red flag, right? Like that’s, that’s one thing we worry about. And then alongside that, the other thing that we’re always interested in about, you know, crossing the line from, like, heavy use to Addictive use is isn’t getting in the way their lives, is it undermining other aspects of their life that should be happening or growing and thriving. And this month, actually sort of gestures in that direction around the boys social life. And his, you know, his peers. And I thought it was such a love the way she framed it of like, you know, they’re all out together now. And he’s in his room alone, like, is he going to end up stunted? And I think that’s a great question, right? Because kids should be growing in their skill set. And so she has this question. And what I would say is, if there’s a worry that the gaming is starting to undermine his development on the social plane, that is grounds for concern, and if you really strictly wanted to call it an addiction, you probably could get away with it at that point, because it’s undermining functioning elsewhere.

Reena Ninan
But how do you tell that your child isn’t socialized? He doesn’t really want to hang out. You know what I like being in my PJs on the weekends, too. So is this really a problem? But like you said, wow, she raises this great point, you know, is he gonna have a hard time socializing? If he doesn’t get into the rhythm? Now? How do you tell the difference? Lee, so when you’ve got to do something innovative to get them out?

Lisa Damour
Absolutely. Okay, so this is like, I think this is in some ways, like one of the most critical questions that gets raised by this letter. And I think you’re 100%, right. I mean, like, I have two daughters. One of them is very introverted. One of them is less. So my introverted daughter, my older daughter, like she would come home from school and like beeline for her room, not because she didn’t like us, not because she didn’t want to be around anybody. Like she’d been around people all day, like in socializing for kids, especially for kids who are introverted. Socializing is very taxing, however skilled at it, they may be. So if I were sitting in the seat of this parent, and I had this concern, I think one way to approach it would be to find someone at school you really trusted, you know, somebody you know, who’s going to give it to you straight. And just say, I got a question for you. My, my kid is like, deep into the games when he gets home. And I worry that this is undermining his fluency with social skills. What do you see in school? Because here’s the thing, and I’ve said this before, I’ll say it again, teachers have so much information. They are stare just data machines, right. And the beautiful thing about teachers is they’re also measuring your 13 year old against every other 13 year old in that room and all the 13 year olds they’ve had for the last 10 years. So it’s so true. So what I would say, first of all, if a teacher tells you they’re worried, you should be worried because you know, they like they don’t say it lightly. They are working with a lot of information. And if the teacher is like, no, he’s lovely, right? Like yesterday can spilled paint on himself in art and your kid was the first one. They’re just as gentle as could be taken care of him. You know, people like him. He gets picked for things people want him around. He handles himself beautifully. Don’t sweat it, I would take that very seriously. If the teacher were more reserved, and so I don’t know, like he can. He is he’s fine. But no, he’s not particularly social or at ease in it. Or if she said, and this, okay, this really gets to something else that I think is always in the conversation about video games, like parents worry about violence in video games, they worry about its impact. And what we know again, the data don’t say what we want them to say, well, we want the data to say are that violent video games are horrible for kids, and they’re going to make everybody really violent. Okay, the data don’t say that. What the data do say is that they move kids up a bit in there, how aggressive they are. So if your kid is not aggressive at all, video games might make them a bit more reactive, aggressive. But again, the way we think about in the data is doesn’t have real world consequences. And those are sometimes hard to measure. But a very, I think, a very nice corner of this research literature is around kids being more reactive, to slights, what do you mean that? So, you know, if you think about violent video games, and you think about our principle that wood fires together, wires together, fire, what fires together wires together, like the things you do repeatedly start to lay down patterns in your mind. And if you think about, you know, live action video games are in a very act of what we would all just sort of the general violent video game universe, it’s a lot of like scanning the environment for evidence of threat and then responding very quickly to that threat. So if you’re doing that, like literally 1000s of times, and afternoon, one of the things that comes up in the research literature is your kid may be walking down the hall and somebody bumps them. And there’s a possibility that as a result of all this gaming, they’re going to take that as more of an aggressive act than it really was. So it’s more triggering, or may not, it may be more triggering, but it may or may not, like turn around and punch the kid. But I mean, like, that’s the thing. Like, that’s where it gets so murky in the literature is like, we don’t have evidence or turning around and punching kids more, but we do have reason to think that they may view the world through a more hostile lens, right, so. So I would listen really carefully for something like that from a teacher. Because that would probably hint to me that the gaming was starting to be to get in the way of forward development that we would want to see.

Reena Ninan
That they’re easily triggered or irritable when they shouldn’t be essentially.

Lisa Damour
Yeah, or just yeah, that just the more like, hostile reactive view of the world, then then we would want any kid to have. So this mom asked Lisa, she really wants the child to pivot to some other passions. What have you found in your experience works because sometimes when a child is focused on one thing, it is very hard to get them to try and do anything else.

Lisa Damour
It is hard. And… So let’s start with a big principle here, which is that variety is good for development. And variety of exposure to different things is good for development. And when I think about in retrospect why the pandemic was so hard you know, one of the things is it really narrowed kids lives they just had contact with very few people. They did very few things and we we like to see exposure to lots of things for development. So let’s take a more on its surface palatable example. Okay? Say your kid becomes obsessed with the violin. And like, you know, say in place of the word video game in this letter, we play a violin, right? Like this kid, you know, his friends are out playing he beelines for his room, he’s playing the violin all we he comes down for meals, right? Okay, so on the surface, we’re like, Well, okay, you know, like, that feels like it’s got more, you know, kind of cultural value and like, we like it better. But I think I would still have some questions like, put, shouldn’t his wife have more stuff going on than like school and violin. And it sounds like this boys does, which is also I think, something I want to acknowledge. But the bottom line is, we want kids to be doing lots of different stuff, because you grow in different directions based on what you’re doing. And when you’re doing one thing, so often, or to the exclusion of other things. It can cause in some ways, I would say almost like an over an over development of certain muscles and an atrophying of others. That is good. Say that again. So like an over development of certain muscles, and then atrophying of others, right? So, like so this Kids Video Game muscle is like, as they would say, this is a new term from when kids were like big muscles, like I’m swole. So he’s got a swole… Let me just say that if my own adolescents could hear me using slang.

Reena Ninan
I was unaware of that term. So thank you for educating.

Lisa Damour
Oh, well, welcome to my world, right. So, okay, so he’s also all in the video game department. But she’s worried that he’s becoming atrophied in social skills or other things. So he just kicked us do stuff. I would say though, it does sound like a lot of gaming. And if she’s uneasy, and I would also just say to any parent, like listen to your gut, right? If this just feels like too much like, I authorize you to listen to your own instincts. I think it is okay to say, alright, buddy, I love you. So and I’m not saying no to games, I am saying you need a little more variety. These are, I came up with five, after school things, you could do five, you know, different ways that you could break up your time on the weekends or after school, you got to choose one, you got to choose one. And as the kids like, I hate them all, instead, that’s fine. You come up with some and we’ll figure something out. But I think that idea of like, you come to the negotiating table and just say, you know, I just want you know, it just feels like gaming’s taking up too much space, you know, in the pie chart of where your life where your time is spent. The gaming pie slice is just too big. Like we got to bring it down a little bit.

Reena Ninan
Okay. So what works, Lisa in trying to get them to see other things when they’re, maybe they just love football, or they love that violin. And if they’re good at it, too, or they’re into it? How do you get them to move in another direction? To find other passions?

Lisa Damour
I think you have to give a rationale. Right? This is the other thing, this kid’s 13. Right? He’s probably in the eighth grade. And, you know, I think there’s so much around teenagers around the worries we have and the things we want them to do differently. And I think that often adults are quite right about those things. Like I actually don’t have any issue with concerns about social media or video games or any of those things. But I think so often we skip the second part of the conversation of is, which is you’re talking to a teenager, like you can’t just tell teenagers what to do. And so I think that here, the mom really does need to have a pretty fleshed out rationale, right? So it really may be her saying, you know, buddy, this is the gaming, I worry that you’re sitting too much, or I worry that you are spending too much time on one thing when there’s other things that would help you learn and grow in other ways. And so I want you to do this, but I’ll work with you on how you do this, or even how much right I think you got to be willing to negotiate. And so I think that’s how you do it is both an explanation and coming to the table together as opposed to the parent trying to hand it down.

Reena Ninan
When you step back, is there anything else that makes you worry or gives you concern about this scenario?

Lisa Damour
I think the other question I would have and this goes back to that what fires together wires together, you know, these like neurological patterns that get set down? You know, when we look at the research on the cognitive impact of video games, what’s very interesting is video games actually can build cognitive skills. And again, the data don’t say what we wanted to say. We wanted to say it turns your brain to jello. But in fact, what the data say are that it can actually improve attentional processes in that when kids are playing video games. What they’re doing is they’re scanning screens and they’re catching peripheral information and they’re needing to pay attention to a whole lot of stuff going on and so it sharpens it. You know, those those skills in some ways, we also know from the data that especially first person games, where the player is navigating spaces actually do improve spatial skills and the understanding of 3d environments and rotational homes. And yeah, this is, it’s fascinating. It’s fascinating. There’s a whole line of literature around what we often do see girls dropping behind boys, sometimes in math later in high school. And one of the explanations, so there’s nothing in terms of, you know, endowment at birth, right? There’s no biological reason why boys or girls would be any more or less capable in math. But one of the explanations that seems to find pretty decent support in the literature is that, you know, a lot of these boys were playing first person games, their spatial skills, their rotational skills are being built by those. And higher order math tends to depend on spatial reasoning. And so and we even have had studies done where we put have kids do spatial games for a while spatial video games, and then it turns out, we do see those skills. Okay, so. So there’s this interesting thing, but there’s also this other thing that we see. So there’s evidence that it builds some cognitive skills. But one of the questions that comes up in the literature is with regard to attention. Video games, really improve that kind of scanning awareness of what’s happening, you know, on the screen. They may make it harder to sit in class, where your job is to pay attention to the teacher and not pay attention to the kid next to you and what he’s doing.

Reena Ninan
Oh, that’s interesting. So you’re saying that sometimes it can create you looking at other distractions? I guess, on the other side, left and right of you?

Lisa Damour
Yes. Yes. That what may be seen, like maybe a, you know, skill set that develops that’s actually helps with kids ability to play video games well, and that we can say is a cognitive skill set, I mean, to be able to scan environments and pick up all sorts of information is it’s it’s a value in certain settings, could be a hindrance in classroom settings, where it’s comparatively boring, right? Like, I can’t really like how, how do you stay focus, you got to focus on the one thing happening at the front of the room. And if you have built up all of this neurological musculature, around scanning the environment, and noticing everything that’s happening, that could make a pretty hard to get through third period, right, so. So the other thing I would say, and maybe this is part of how the case gets made to this kid, which is you need to build, you’re building all sorts of neurological muscles on the video games. I’m not saying they’re bad, they may actually help you in calculus, like I hate, you know, that is the truth. And I also need you to build the neurological muscle of sitting and focusing right. And, again, find out if this is an issue with school, find out, you know, what else you’re hearing from teachers, but you can say you can be in your room, but I need you to read a while, right? Or you can, for every hour, you want to play video games, you got to read for half an hour, I mean, those kinds of negotiations can happen. But again, like just if we think about wanting kids to have many, many skill sets developed over the course of the day, privileging one activity over all others can compromise that.

Reena Ninan
It’s great to know. Boy, you have really opened my eyes to gaming in a way that I did not know, based on the research that you’re talking about. It’s fascinating. Before we get to parenting to go, is there anything you want to leave with parents before we go to wrap this up?

Lisa Damour
What I want parents to do is what this letter writer did, which is to look at the whole world of the kid, when trying to figure out if there’s a problem, because I know how anxious we can be about screen time. And I know that there are headlines that just say screen time, and then parents like oh my gosh, my kid has a lot of screen time and maybe I should just be concerned. And this mom was like, Yeah, but I mean, he’s thriving, he seems to be doing well. He does all this other stuff. And I just I think the best parenting is in that murky space, right? Where it’s not clear if there’s an issue or not. And we take it all under consideration when then seeking help, and I just, I just have so much admiration for how unreactive this mother was. And the way she framed this question.

Reena Ninan
I love this. And I felt the same way and the letters we can and I know we say this often but just the care and the mindset that these parents are in seeking help. I love it. I absolutely love it. They said what do you have for us for parenting to go?

Lisa Damour
Reena, one of the things I think about a lot these days are no worms in the environments we’re in. And I think about the way in which we’re all shaped by the norms of the environments we’re in. And I think this is especially true for young people. So another way parents can assess how worried they should be about a kid’s use of video games or social media is to think about, well, what are the norms in those environments, right. So for example, if a kid is using video games in a place where the norm is that kids are playing together and throwing around slurs like crazy, which is a norm in some of these environments, that’s grounds for concern. If a kid is using Instagram in a way, where what they’re looking at is nothing but eating disorder behavior, because that’s what the algorithm has produced. That’s grounds for concern because that norms eating disorder behavior. So as parents are trying to tease apart when to worry about spaces and places kids go and online environments they spend time in. One way to drill down on that question is, am I okay with the norms that are being established in that environment, which you could be with somebody or games? Or you could be in fact, with some social media use? Or do the norms in that environment make me uncomfortable, and I don’t want my kids spending a lot of time in environments where that kind of stuff is being normalized.

Reena Ninan
I learned so much about how the environment you create can make a difference and sort of looking at it completely. The whole range can help you solve the problem and break it down. Next week, we’re going to talk about a rule breaker who ends up leading the Honor Society and the disappointment from one child. How do you teach your kids how to deal with unfairness? I’ll see you next week.

Lisa Damour
See you next week.

The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

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