What I wish I’d known about my teen’s gaming habits


by Walter Soberchak

Shorecrestl was lucky enough to get a computer lab in 1981. One of the first in the state. A row of Apple II’s that I was so intrigued with, I took both programming classes.

Growing up, my room looked like a Radio Shack store (like my office does still). When I visited a Radio Shack, I (annoyingly) found I knew more about the products than the employees. I wired up an intercom system courtesy of cheap Radio Shack stuff with the requisite hidden speaker in my older brother’s room allowing me to listen in and harass him at will (he never found it but it was fun hearing him rummage around looking for it).

So when I had kids of my own, I wanted them to be tech-savvy and computer-literate. I set up tables and CAT5 connections in our basement so their friends could bring their “boxes” over and game the night away. Considering it a vital life skill, I showed them how to build their own gaming rigs.

But soon the screen time battles ensued. At first, controlling internet access through the router worked pretty well if I wasn’t around to use the wireless switch that turned off just their monitors. The balking started to increase, though.

And increase, and increase.

As they entered teendom, I found it increasingly difficult to set boundaries for their internet use. Balking turned to flat-out war at times. You know, things being thrown, monitors and walls punched, normal stuff.

I started to wonder what I’d unleashed after a Disneyland trip where one of my kids insisted on sitting in the hotel gaming.

They played sports and did their class assignments but often declined to do other activities if it meant less gaming time. The cat was definitely out of the bag. So I scoured the internet for information on “acceptable” amounts of gaming time and related topics. I searched and searched, yet all I found was the opinion that too much of anything isn’t good (duh). There was no real consensus about gaming potentially being a flat-out addiction with the assumption that parents can just limit screen time at will.

All these “Pollyanna” articles about limiting screen time to X hours per day work great until your kid is more significant (larger) than you and, although normally compliant, starts to ignore your opinion that they’re gaming too much.

As a recovering alcoholic (8 years sober), I knew what I was observing were my own addictive tendencies, and it scared the crap out of me.

Loosey, goosey tech Dad was now supplying his kids with crack. Way to go, Dad. Maybe that parenting book I’d read about delving out consequences would be the answer. Nope. Hiding the router works until they need the internet for homework, and you have to tell them where you hid it. Or they hit the reset button on it and wipe out the time restrictions.

As they headed off to college in 2018 (with their gaming rigs, of course), the World Health Organization finally recognized “Gaming Disorder” as, whattaya know, a disorder stating “ …people who partake in gaming should be alert to the amount of time they spend on gaming activities, particularly when it is to the exclusion of other daily activities”

No kidding, Sherlock.

So what would I do differently if I had a time machine? First, I wouldn’t be so lazy in taking the easy way out so often. Devices are instant pacifiers. Oxy for the “pain” of parenting. And as with all highly addictive substances, they can kick your ass before you realize you’re in deep.

It takes some seriously attentive parenting to get some kids to balance screen time with other activities.

And whatever you do, don’t justify letting your kid game all they want as a potential “career” move. Like any other sport, the chances are better that they get struck by lightning.

The “my way or the highway” approach may work for some, but I didn’t want to be like my parents. I wanted my kids to come to the natural conclusion that there’s more to life than gaming and watching stupid shit on YouTube. I’ve observed dictators and helicopter parents, and let’s just say things didn’t work out so well for many of them.

I’ve always felt that if you haven’t instilled good decision-making into your kids by the time they reach 6th grade, you’ve missed the bus.

Most of the advice out there seems to focus on the pre-teen years when kids are more scared of us; I mean compliant and malleable. Addiction can start at any age, but for us, it became really serious as we enter high school.

Most screen time is mental junk food overloading the brain with dopamine which is the opposite of what reading does for the brain.

No wonder kids get sucked in. It’s just how our brains work. Our brains want more, more, more!

How does one counteract screen-induced dopamine? For starters, I’ve noticed that there seems to be a lack of passion for reading among many hardcore gamers. Why read when you can just watch a video or play a game? The lack of interaction dumbs down our engagement receptors.

Society, in general, has the attention span of a rabbit these days. Barely able to read more than a paragraph.

Most would agree that instilling a life-long love of reading should be a priority in raising kids. And you can’t just leave it to their teachers. Reading is one of the antivenoms of screen addiction. Parents need to help their kids find things they’ll find interesting to read. No matter what that may be. Unlike many, I think reading on a device is just as effective as reading a good old-fashioned book. Plus, it’s more convenient. After all, they always have their phones with them.

If you have preteen kids, you probably think you got this, but let me tell you, teendom seems to be where the wheels come off because many parents think that if their kid is doing AP this or that, all’s good. Well, it's not if they don’t enjoy reading for pleasure.

How do you know if your kid is reading for pleasure? Turn off Netflix yourself once in a while and read what they’re reading. Then get the added extra benefit of having a conversation with your kid. “What did you think of Bilbo Baggin's decision to…?” Whatever you do, don’t make it an inquisition or a test; make it conversational. Kids need to know they’re trusted.

The second thing I’d do differently is making more of an effort to create creative activities. I left creativity too much in the hands of my kids. Sure, they’ll come up with plenty of ideas, but it wouldn’t hurt to make a list and bring their attention to activities they may not have thought of.

Activities that get them away from their screens like RC cars/drones, go-carting, bowling, geo-caching, having a movie-making contest, airsofting, HAM radio (wait, what!?).

Your kid’s friend’s parents (hopefully) understand that you are all in this together and should happily be recruited as co-conspirators to raise our kids to be self-sufficient, respectable, compassionate, happy adults.

“It takes a village,” so conspire with other parents to encourage other activities. When I suggested other activities, they’d often get shot down because my kids didn’t want to be the ones to suggest something different to the group.

Not all activities have to cost money. There are lots of resources for activity ideas. The key is to give kids more ideas than they might think of on their own. Which is way better than the “sit and look out the window” game I grew so “fond” of as a kid, especially on road trips.

If I could have a do-over, I think I’d be less lazy, more creative, and more persistent, knowing what I know now. Rather than assuming this is just the way it is these days.

The upside and downside of tech are here to stay. Figuring out a healthy balance will vary from kid to kid and family to family. I wish you the best!

If you’d like more information on managing your teens screen time, learn useful tools to approach this with more confidence at this event.

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