We are now more than half a year into the COVID19 pandemic, and as a result of isolation and social distancing there has been a rise in the number of hours that individuals are playing video games. In a recent independent market research company (IPSOS) poll, the results showed that 40% of adults and 52% of children have increased their time playing video games on a computer, phone, tablet, or console since lockdown procedures were put in place in Canada. (1) Those high numbers are a good indicator of an overall increase in problematic video gaming.

Individuals who are gaming for excessive hours and are at risk of or experiencing addiction are also at risk of failing to thrive. As a result of spending several hours a day playing video games, they will often shurk their other responsibilities such as work, school, chores, and personal grooming. Their eating habits may be poor, their interpersonal relationships with family and friends may be neglected or damaged. They may also be relying on gaming to help them cope with some of the challenges the pandemic has created or to cope with a previously existing mental health issue that has worsened during social isolation. Healthcare providers have seen an increase in concern by family members of those addicted to video gaming, and I have seen a rise in calls from parents looking for coaching support through the pandemic. These are scary times and it is important to look for help and guidance, as a caregiver.

I hear from many families, each with their own personal story of gaming addiction, but many have a similar theme. Here’s a typical scenario I hear about: our son is playing video games in excess of eight hours a day, many of those hours during late night, well past bedtime. He tells me that all of his friends are playing and this is his only social circle. He rarely showers or brushes his teeth, and his bedroom, where he plays these games, is a disheveled mess, with dirty dishes, food wrappers, and soiled bed sheets. When I ask him to stop playing, he screams at me to get out of his room. His temper flares and he can become physically and verbally volatile at times. He hasn’t attended school in three months. I am worried sick about his behaviour, but I can’t get him to stop gaming for fear of his wrath. What can I do?

A home like this most likely already feels like a battleground. Removing all gaming devices and access to the internet abruptly could create a catastrophic blow out between a parent and child. The child’s addicted brain has become accustomed to the rush of dopamine from playing these virtual games in excess, and his moods have become unpredictable and uncontrollable as a result. To enforce a complete detox may put the child and the family at risk of harm. 

While the long term goal may be abstinence, the short term goal is to reduce in smaller increments the amount of time this child plays video games. This approach is known in the mental health field as Harm Reduction. 

The Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Canada’s largest mental health teaching hospital and one of the world’s largest research centers in its field, defines Harm Reduction as an evidence-based, client-centred approach which applies specific strategies aimed at reducing the negative consequences (harm) of gaming without the need for complete abstinence. (2)

What’s important in a harm reduction approach is understanding when and why gaming became the prominent activity in a child’s life. As a coach, I look to uncover what emotional need the child is hungering for that hours and hours of excessive gaming is feeding. Was there a traumatic event? Is there bullying at school? Was there a significant illness with the child or within the family? Are there difficulties with learning? Does the child struggle with social anxiety? Are there other mental health issues? It is in understanding and finding compassion for another’s suffering that we find a way to reach them and look for ways to help the healing begin.

I often hear parents make statements such as, “I can’t believe he’s doing this to me” or “Why does he want to hurt me in this way?” It’s important to remove the belief that a child’s addiction is a personal affront to parents. When a child is suffering or struggling emotionally and doesn’t feel safe enough to talk about it or can’t find the words to express negative feelings, that child will show us through challenging behaviour instead. I explain to parents why this addictive behaviour should be considered a cry for help rather than a personal affront to them.

Communication is key in reaching a child who is addicted and in denial of needing help or needing to reduce their gaming hours. Parents need to come from a place that is both firm, yet soft and compassionate. The struggle is real, and a child who is yelled at, mocked, and/or criticized for their gaming behaviour is a child who will retreat further away from any interference from their parents. Coaching provides opportunities to explore how to change the dialogue in your home so that your child will listen. Not only does this assist with compliance to reduction in gaming time, but to also have the child eventually consider getting the help they need from an addiction counselor. 

In coaching, it’s important for me to get a picture of all of the family dynamics, as well as the child’s story that led up to the addiction, so that I can create some strategies to start the process of reducing harm to both the addicted child and their family members. My goal is to give a parent the tools that enable them to feel they are capable of making healthy changes in their home, without the fear of any backlash from their child. One step at a time, one day at a time, and a parent can regain authority and lead their child to healthier, regulated use of their time they spend playing video games. The child can then re-engage in self-care, nurturing other areas of their life, and find a sense of achievement and value outside of the virtual world. 

For a free 15 minute video call to learn more about my online coaching for parents, please email me at ElaineUskoski@gmail.com

  1. Gambling and Gaming During COVID-19 – Prevalence, Implications and Strategies to Stay Safe by Steve Keller and Carley Sims, YMCA Youth Gambling Awareness Program, YMCA of Greater Toronto https://www.eenet.ca/sites/default/files/2018/RRR%20Gambling%20and%20Gaming%20during%20COVID-19.pdf

2. https://ontario.cmha.ca/harm-reduction/