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Addicted to computer games...

Q: i am 27 yrs old mom of a 5 yrs-old boy who really, i may say addicted to computer games. Im worried about him coz he shows no interest in going to school. Aside from that at home he becomes destructive everytime we stop him from doing or getting what he wants. At the age of five he is lazy in writing and doing school work. But i believe that my child is smart and can be an outstanding student if only we could motivate him.

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A: Computers, video games, and the Internet have become entrenched features of our daily lives. Computer use has reached beyond work and is now a major source of fun and entertainment for many people. For most people, computer use and video game play is integrated into their lives in a balanced healthy manner. For others, time spent on the computer or video game is out of balance, and has displaced work, school, friends, and even family.

When time spent on the computer, playing video games or cruising the Internet reaches a point that it harms a youngster's or adult's family and social relationships, or disrupts school or work life, that person may be caught in a cycle of addiction. Like other addictions, the computer or video game has replaced friends and family as the source of a person's emotional life. Increasingly, to feel good, the addicted person spends more time playing video games or searching the Internet. Time away from the computer or game causes moodiness or withdrawal.

When a person spends up to ten hours a day or more rearranging or sending files, playing games, surfing the net, visiting chat rooms, instant messaging, and reading emails, that easily can reach up to seventy to eighty hours a week on-line with the computer. Major social, school or work disruptions will result.

Symptoms of computer or video game addiction:

For kids:

  • Choosing to use the computer or play video games, rather than see friends.
  • Dropping out of other social groups (clubs or sports).
  • Falling asleep in school.
  • Irritable when not playing a video game or on the computer.
  • Lying about computer or video game use.
  • Most of non-school hours are spent on the computer or playing video games.
  • Not keeping up with assignments.
  • Worsening grades.

For adults:

  • Can't control computer or video game use.
  • Computer or video game use is characterized by intense feelings of pleasure and guilt.
  • Experience feelings of withdrawal, anger, or depression when not on the computer or involved with their video game.
  • Fantasy life on-line replaces emotional life with partner.
  • Hours playing video games or on the computer increasing, seriously disrupting family, social or even work life.
  • Lying about computer or video game use.
  • May incur large phone or credit bills for on-line services.
  • Obsessing and pre-occupied about being on the computer, even when not connected.

There are even physical symptoms that may point to addiction:

  • Back, neck aches
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome.
  • Dry eyes
  • Failure to eat regularly or neglect personal hygiene
  • Headaches
  • Sleep disturbances

For the computer or video game addicted person, a fantasy world on-line or in a game has replaced his or her real world. The virtual reality of the computer or game is more inviting than the every day world of family, school or work. With the increased access to pornography on the Internet and in games, this fantasy world may be highly sexual.

Kids love PC 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 PC games commit fewer surgical errors than do their non-game-playing counterparts.

PC games are emotionally "safe." When a youngster 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.

But PC 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 youngster can become "addicted" to PC games, but kids with AD/HD seem to be at particular risk. Many of them have poor social or athletic skills, and this doesn't matter in the world of PC games. Such games level the playing field for kids with AD/HD. 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."

To make the games less seductive, find ways to minimize your youngster's downtime at home, especially those times when he is alone. Maybe your youngster 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 or synagogue.

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 youngster find some activity that he likes and a place where he can do it.

Kids with AD/HD often lack the "internal controls" needed to regulate how much time they spend playing PC 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 O.K.? If the youngster plays Internet-based games, which sites are acceptable?

Once parents agree, sit down with your youngster 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 youngster is allowed to spend 30 minutes at PC 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.

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 youngster 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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