This blog comes from a question I posed to my colleague Miguel Brown, LMFT of Miami Teen Counseling. I reached out to Miguel because of his area of expertise and wanted to get his opinion on what he understands about “Video Game Addiction” and how he works with teenagers and families presenting with too much time on their gaming systems or electronic devices. Miguel’s work focuses on helping teens, he is located in Miami, and speaks both English and Spanish.
Honestly, I think that video game addiction is a pretty rare thing. Its very different than drug addiction. I think that parents tend to label it an addiction because they don’t know how else to make sense of what is happening. Parents also have difficulty understanding the amount of time their teenagers spend on their phones. They don’t really understand the social importance that it has in socializing for modern teenagers.
I find that video game over use, usually functions as an escape, a distraction from difficult things happening in the teenagers life and as a way they can feel some kind of success when in real life they experience a lot of failure. They can identify with a powerfull avatar as they feel week in real life. It’s a defense. But in the same way teenagers over use video games adults work too much, read too much, watch too much TV, work out too much, etc… They are trying to avoid things in real life. But if they start to see what is happening and why they naturally start to turn away seeking satisfaction.
I help the teenager talk about the role that it plays in his/her life so that he/she can understand in his/her own way how video games are substituting for real life and functioning to keep his/her mind away from the pain or difficulties that are happening.
The more they understand this in their own way the less effective video games tend to be at making them feel better because they understand too much about how this (excessive video game use) isn’t helping them, and then they naturally start to draw away from it, let themselves feel more of what is going on and begin to talk more about real life problems and what to do about them. This can’t be forced by explanation. They have to be allowed to come to their own understanding of it. Sometimes this really needs to start in accepting the very real psychological importance of the game and allowing the teen to talk a lot about it and getting into the details of how they understand the game play, the challenges, the other people playing and using this as a starting point to make comparisons to their real lives and help them see the psychological function of the game in what it gives them and what it does not give them. At the end of the day they are trying to help themselves by playing this game a lot, and I think they need to explore and think about this idea a lot. When they are in it it’s too ego syntonic to do anything else but allow it to gradually become ego dystonic. Trying to push will make them defensive and reticent because they are often convinced at first that it is what they need to be happy. Labeling it an addiction I think is very problematic and pathologizing and threatens the non judgemental exploration of what it does and doesn’t do for the person. I never talk about it using the word addiction.
I think another really important thing is to take the teenager off the defensive by accepting and being interested non judgmentally, so they can come to their own conclusions. I keep in mind that they will internalize a non judgemental, curious and benevolent representation of me through the therapeutic relationship. This will lead then naturally towards a healthier path.