As a support person for creating awareness on Video Gaming Disorder, I am part of a Facebook group called Game Quitters Parent Support. This morning one of the moms in this group posted a video of gorillas who had been rescued from years of abuse while living only in cages and were now being released and seeing sunlight and walking on grass for the very first time. They were exuberant with the sense of joy and freedom. She captioned the video with “I imagine that when our sons leave the prison of gaming behind, they will have a similar experience.” This got me thinking about how much truth there was to her tongue-in-cheek remark.

I am the mother of a recovering video gaming addict. My son turned to online multi-player video games when he was just eleven years old. His older brother was on a three-month exchange program in Santander, Spain, and got the great idea to introduce online gaming as a way to stay in touch with his younger sibling. Their play time began very innocently; two brothers who adored each other and had a close bond. By age twelve, my younger son began a series of social struggles while entering a new middle school. He left many of his friends behind to begin a specialized program and found himself feeling quite ostracized at the new school. He just couldn’t seem to find his way into the inner circle of kids who had already established their social tribes. He was also a part of the gifted program, probably the least popular of the nerd groups, and this was of no help either. His self-esteem slid, and his anxiety increased. I was unaware. He wasn’t sharing with me. Instead, he worked to find a solution by creating new friendships while playing more online video games.

I was aware of the new online friendships and asked him to share a little about who he was speaking to, and reminded him about online safety with personal information, so that he would not become a target for predators. We are a close-knit family, and share many activities together still, even into their adult years. So, while I raised my sons, I encouraged them to find a balance between video gaming and outside sports and hobbies. We lived in a rural area, so there was no lack of outdoor space. We had dogs to play with, trees to climb, trails to hike, and both of my sons were involved in various sports. They also both had part time jobs during their high school years. While living at home, my son’s video gaming habits were monitored in a fairly controlled environment. There were times when I felt my youngest son’s gaming was excessive, but I wasn’t aware of such a thing as video gaming addiction. I didn’t realize that I should be monitoring closer and limiting his screen time even more.

By the time my youngest left for university, my naivety and ignorance proved a dangerous mix for him. The freedom he was allowed while living in residence, without parental guidance, coupled with the fact that his only friends were an online group, created a toxic and dangerous situation. His low sense of self proved even more damaging, when he realized that the school workload was tough, and there were many students, he deemed smarter than him, who were exceeding expectations. He became anxious and depressed and he turned to more gaming to cope. By second year, he stopped attending classes, holed up in his residence for two straight months, not grooming, barely eating, and rarely communicating with me. He was living like a prisoner; he was fully addicted to gaming. His sleep cycle was reversed as he was gaming all night and sleeping all day. He could not self-regulate, and he couldn’t stop on his own. He needed to be rescued and freed from his gaming imprisonment. He had to experience withdrawal symptoms and learn to incorporate former activities he’d enjoyed back into his life. He even introduced new ones. He had to reverse his sleep cycle and start living during daylight hours again. The activities proved extremely important in replacing the dopamine high that gaming had given him, and the Vitamin D from the sun calmed his anxiety. But this all felt brand new, much like the gorillas walking out into sunlight again. He was starting over and creating a brand-new life that didn’t include video gaming.

My son was fortunate in that he had interests he could pursue and re-visit. Therapists today are reporting that many young gaming addicted clients know of no other sports or hobbies they can return to. Video gaming has been their only source of recreation. They don’t know what else to do, or how to replace gaming with something equally as entertaining and self-fulfilling. They haven’t exercised in many years and find it difficult to start. Getting fresh air and playing outdoors with a friend is a most foreign concept to them. They have essentially been imprisoned by a screen and/or game console. 

Recently, my husband and I took a walk in a neighbourhood of young families in the early evening. We noticed there were no bicycles laying in the driveway, no basketball nets waiting for a child to shoot hoops with, no playsets in use in backyards, no sounds of children laughing, no barbecues sizzling with dinner on the grill, no adults on the patio on this beautiful summer day. It was like a dead zone, completely lifeless and quiet. I remember turning to my husband and remarking about this observation and asking out loud if everyone was indoors scrolling on their tablets or championing a video game. I felt both disturbed and sad by this revelation. It was as though we were walking around the grounds of a prison, with no outside life in existence.

Parents will need to wake from this numbing, sleepy state, and reinstate the very necessary part of raising healthy children before gaming and screening addiction becomes epidemic, and sedentary-created health issues and obesity become the norm . Children require a daily balance of both sedentary behaviours and physical activities to support their development. According to the Canadian Health Guidelines, this will provide them “better body composition, cardiorespiratory and musculoskeletal fitness, academic achievement and cognition, emotional regulation, pro-social behaviours, cardiovascular and metabolic health, and overall quality of life. A child should have an accumulation of at least 60 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous physical activity involving a variety of aerobic activities. Vigorous physical activities, and muscle and bone strengthening activities should each be incorporated at least 3 days per week. Added to this there should also be several hours of a variety of structured and unstructured light physical activities. No more than 2 hours per day of recreational screen time should be allowed, and there should be limited sitting for extended periods. Uninterrupted 9 to 11 hours of sleep per night for those aged 5–13 years and 8 to 10 hours per night for those aged 14–17 years” is essential.

Has technology and screen time become your child’s prison? It’s not too late to change this. Like the newly released gorillas, seeing the light again can produce endless hours of joy and a new sense of freedom.