Teens, Tweens & Video Games: Drawing the Line to Avoid Addiction

What we learned in conversation with Dr. Hilarie Cash, Dr. Brett Kennedy, and Tracy Markle.

When tweens and teens play video games seemingly all the time, especially during COVID-19, parents can find themselves at a loss. Not only does it make it hard to have a relationship with their kids in the moment, but parents also can find themselves with a growing fear about how they might cope in the future. Parents feel they don’t understand, don’t relate, and can’t connect to their seemingly always-plugged in kids.

It’s hard. And you’re not alone. Ninety-four percent of parents say they are concerned about their children’s game use (McAfee, 2018). The Center on Media and Child Health lets us know that a majority of children ages 8-17 play video games for more than 2 hours per day.

In our most recent Action Network Live! webinar, we welcomed three experts — Dr. Hilarie Cash, Tracy Markle, and Dr. Brett Kennedy — to help answer your questions about your gamers and their connected lives. If you missed the live webinar, watch the recording here. And, we hope you can use our favorite takeaways (below) as you look to support your family this summer and beyond.

Why is it so hard to get them to turn off their games?

If we think it’s impossible to get kids off their devices, it’s because they are designed that way. In fact, according to panelist Tracy Markle, video game and social media designers take advantage of adolescent brain development and apply “persuasive design” principles. These games are created to manipulate users and change the way that kids think and act. So, if you’re blaming your parenting skills for your child’s time on video games, give yourself a little (or a lot of) grace!

In addition to being designed for endless play, video games are easy for kids. “Video games don’t take effort,” Tracy told us. “They guide you through each step – you don’t have to think, you don’t have to be bored. After doing video games, it’s extremely difficult to do more mundane things that take more effort. It’s why it’s so difficult to get them to ride bikes, go swimming, and go for hikes…” even though kids and teens need those things for their brains and bodies.

Starting with these facts can really help. Many middle and high schoolers get really interested when we talk about the brain science behind video games. Learn about it together and discuss what the science says about why we play and how the game is designed to keep us playing. Invite them to be critical thinkers about their experiences and to figure out how to outsmart the game!

Be curious.

When it comes to our kids’ gaming, we must start from a place of curiosity. Get curious about what your kids are up to before judging them. Despite its challenges, Dr. Hilarie Cash called our COVID-19 quarantine “a fabulous opportunity because parents and kids are together so much more…Out of this can grow healthier, stronger family relationships.” Family wellbeing is dependent on our tech-life balance, and quarantine has tested us on this. Yet, being together more offers us the opportunity to bear witness to children’s gaming habits and online behavior.

When we’re home together more, parents can really get to know what kids are doing when they’re playing. “How many of you have sat down and actually watched your kids play video games? Or asked your kids, what does that feel like when you see that happen in that game?”  Brett asked us. Dive in. Get connected to all the layers of what they are doing when they are plugged in. Play with them. Tap into your inner teen (if you dare)! This is the perfect start for helping your tween/teen to set limits and reduce the power struggles.

And yes, we do have to set limits.

Bringing it back to neurobiology, Dr. Cash reminds us that we’re using glucose in our brains when we’re focused on anything, even video games. When children are focusing too long, this glucose gets used up and needs to be replenished, generally by taking breaks. Overall, the brain will function better if children get breaks. So, not only do we think it’s important for kids to disconnect once in a while, it is imperative for their brain function.

Parents need to be strategic about helping kids make time for breaks and balance. Before they play, create a plan with your tween or teen. Many families thrive using screen time contracts, where they sign on to a plan for managing how and for how long they use their device(s). Middle and high schoolers should be in charge of their plan as much as possible. But, parents should let teens know that they will be checking in and holding them accountable based on their plan.

Setting timers or other cues to help kids take a break (or even just to look up) are also very helpful. When a timer goes off, for example, consider having something positive lined up to incentivize the break. This can include a snack, a call with their BFF, or a (socially-distanced) outing; your children will have a good idea of what they’d like to do when they take a break, so get their input.

Another critical factor in helping tweens and teens to manage their screen time is to keep gaming happening in a common area as much as possible. This is extra tricky now that devices are so mobile. However, the physical presence of others is key to keeping your teen healthy if they decide to play video games (see the information on limbic resonance). Devices in common spaces also offer reassurance that kids are accessing appropriate content. And, if your tweens/teens are allowed to play games with violent or sexual content (or are doing it anyway), parents can also more easily help kids process and use critical thinking skills around their experiences.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but the best thing you can do is to keep the rules as consistent as possible, and acknowledge that you will likely need to establish clear consequences when rules are disrespected and kids don’t hold themselves accountable. The same goes for tweens/teens who live in multiple households, where rules can differ. If adults can’t agree on screen time rules, the best one parent can do is to develop a plan, be consistent, have consequences, and educate the children on the impacts of screens. Parents can also find solidarity beyond their household; developing a network of other families who have similar screen time thoughts as you can be a huge support.

But, what about the social aspects of the game?

One big struggle when limiting game play is the belief in the benefits of the social aspect of video game play. While there can be an exhausting power struggle and deep concerns from parents about video game content, middle and high schoolers are increasingly pressured into playing and using games like Fortnite to socialize. Video games can also be a social opportunity within families, with some mentioning that the only time that their kids get along is during game play.

Seeking socialization online is not harmful in moderation, but excessive gaming can impact kids’ abilities to cope in real social situations like school, play, and work, said Dr. Cash. The reality is that, more than ever, people are online, which is putting our kids at greater risk on many levels. Dr. Kennedy points out that “it’s important that we don’t fall into the idea that ‘COVID has created a monster that we all just have to ride out’” around our tech. We need to support our tweens and teens to be healthy and invest in their wellbeing by setting limits and helping them navigate.

Gaming is never the only opportunity for socializing, even for our game-loving kids. If kids are seeking connection using digital tools, there are a number of different outlets for that – including creative projects online, board games like chess, and simply talking or video chatting versus texting. And, of course, in-person socializing, even within the family, is the most important for all of us!

What’s Limbic Resonance?

People need the physical presence of other people for their health and wellbeing. When we are in the physical presence of another person, whether touching or nearby, the brain releases chemicals in the limbic system, which fuels both emotional and social development and leads to happiness. When we interact via screens, on the other hand, it does not produce this limbic resonance. When kids rely on video games, texting, or other device-oriented communication, our bodies and brains don’t get the kind of connection we really need. So, make sure that your child is at least getting lots of interaction from family members at this time. Be sure that their gaming devices are in a common area, so that they can at least sense the physical presence of others while gaming. And, carve out lots of screen-free time to help teens and tweens restore!

So, is it actually addiction? And if it is, what do I do?

Any addiction requires diagnosis by a licensed provider, but Dr. Kennedy tells us that it’s very easy to become addicted based on brain science and game design. Generally, very young children (through elementary school) don’t get diagnosed with addiction because it is developmentally typical that they don’t have the impulse control to manage their screen time fluently.

What we want to look for in middle and high schoolers is their ability to self-regulate their play. If, by high school, they can’t switch it off and they can’t function socially or academically without it, this is when they definitely need additional parental guidance and possibly professional help. Additionally, many children can be especially vulnerable to staying plugged in. For example, depression and anxiety can be factors that lead to gaming overuse and there are strong connections between screen time and increasing mental health issues. More time online also means that kids may have access to supportive communities or people/experiences that encourage self-harm. Another vulnerable group includes children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, attention issues like ADHD, and other sensory-seekers. Because video games often offer more rewards the longer one plays, it can be easy for our kiddos who seek such sensations to stay on.

Since work and school moved home, it’s been more important than ever to set boundaries. Video games are literally designed to keep your teen or tween playing nonstop. So, before you feel like you’ve failed, take a deep breath and stay curious!

A big thank you to Dr. Hilarie Cash, Tracy Markle, and Dr. Brett Kennedy for their energy and expertise and for sharing the additional resources below:

About the Presenters: 

Dr. Hilarie Cash, a leading expert in the field of internet and video game addiction, is co-founder of reSTART Life, the first residential program in the United States and Canada designed for adults and adolescents who experience addiction to the internet and video games.

Tracy Markle, MA, LPC, is the founder and co-director of the Digital Media Treatment & Education Center (dTEC), which provides psychotherapy services to individuals of all ages and their families who are impacted by the effects of digital media overuse.

Dr. Brett Kennedy, co-director of dTEC, works with adolescents and adults struggling with digital media overuse and “addiction” to gaming, social media, and information overload, by advocating a philosophy of mindfulness and balance in our relationship with technology.