In today's digital age, video games have become an integral part of the lives of many children and teenagers, including Autistic young people. Concerns about excessive gaming and potential addiction often arise among parents, raising questions about the impact on their child's wellbeing. However, it is essential to recognize that video games can meet various needs and serve very real functional purposes.
Functional Purpose and Met Needs
From an early age, Alex faced numerous challenges at school - social ostracization, bullying from peers, sensory overload that overwhelmed their senses, and difficulties connecting with teachers and schoolwork. Each day felt like an uphill battle, leaving them feeling isolated and defeated. However, amidst the chaos, there was one place where Alex found solace and valuable benefits – their own home. As the school bell rang, Alex would rush home, eagerly grabbing the game controller, immersing themselves in the virtual worlds of video games. In those pixelated realms, Alex found a sense of control, a place where they could conquer challenges and achieve goals in a safe environment. The games became a refuge, offering respite from the difficulties they faced at school and regulation after a difficult day. Through gaming, Alex honed problem-solving skills, cultivated resilience, and experienced a sense of accomplishment that seemed elusive in the real world. Within this digital sanctuary, Alex discovered a community of fellow gamers who accepted and celebrated them for their unique abilities. The online friendships they forged became a source of genuine connection and understanding. Gradually, the confidence and resilience nurtured in the gaming realm started to spill over into their everyday life, empowering Alex to navigate school with newfound strength and resilience. They began to advocate for themselves, seek support from understanding teachers, and building bridges with several classmates who shared their gaming interests. With time, the once lonely and overwhelmed child blossomed into a resilient individual who had discovered the transformative power of video games as a catalyst for growth and self-discovery.
When seeking to understand any behavior, we have to look for how the behavior is functional for the individual and what needs the behavior meets. With gaming, there are several reasons why young people may spend a significant amount of time playing video games. It is important to understand that gaming in and of itself is not a bad thing and can often provide numerous benefits for the gamer's wellbeing.
In a world that is often overloaded with sensory information, video games can provide a controlled sensory environment that meets sensory needs. The visual, auditory, and tactile feedback offered by gaming can be soothing and engaging and is adjustable by the gamer in ways that aren't possible in the physical world.
Polyvagal Perspective: Gaming provides a controlled sensory environment where players can regulate the level and intensity of sensory input. This can help individuals with sensory sensitivities feel safe and in control, activating the ventral vagal branch of the autonomic nervous system associated with a calm and social state.
Alternative Strategies: To address this need outside of gaming, parents can explore other sensory activities such as art, music, or sensory bins. Engaging in outdoor activities like hiking or swimming can provide alternative sensory experiences.
Predictability and Routine
Video games often offer clear rules, structured gameplay, predictable patterns, and consistent feedback, which can provide a sense of predictability, familiarity, and control.
Polyvagal Perspective: This predictability can create a sense of safety and activate the ventral vagal system, promoting feelings of relaxation and security.
Alternative Strategies: Establishing predictable daily routines at home and school, using visual schedules, timers, and calendars, can provide structure and promote predictability in other aspects of the child's life.
Many children develop intense interests in specific topics or activities. Video games often align with these interests, allowing them to immerse themselves into something they find compelling. When individuals engage in video games related to their interests, it can elicit a state of focused attention and enjoyment.
Polyvagal Perspective: This state of engagement activates the ventral vagal system, allowing individuals to feel safe and connected to the activity, fostering a sense of well-being.
Alternative Strategies: To support interests outside of gaming, parents can encourage exploration through reading books, watching documentaries, or engaging in related hobbies. Supporting involvement in special interest groups or clubs can further enhance their engagement and be a potential source of community.
Escape and Coping Mechanism
Video games can serve as an escape from overwhelming situations, sensory overload, or social challenges. It provides a temporary retreat and helps with emotional regulation. As such, video games can serve as a form of escapism, allowing individuals to mentally disengage from real-life stressors.
Polyvagal Perspective: By providing a temporary retreat from overwhelming situations, gaming can help regulate the autonomic nervous system, shifting individuals into a calmer state and promoting a sense of safety.
Alternative Strategies: It is also important to teach alternative relaxation techniques that help to regulate vagal tone, such as deep breathing, meditation, or engaging in physical activities like yoga. Creating quiet spaces or sensory retreats where individuals can take breaks is also beneficial.
Contrary to popular belief, video games can offer opportunities for social interaction, even for those who struggle with face-to-face communication. Online multiplayer games allow people to connect with others who share their interests, promoting a sense of belonging that can sometimes be difficult in the physical world. Online multiplayer games can provide a platform for social interaction that feels less overwhelming compared to face-to-face interactions.
Polyvagal Perspective: The perceived safety of virtual interactions can activate the ventral vagal system, promoting social engagement and reducing feelings of social threat or anxiety.
Alternative Strategies: It is also important to encourage participation in structured social activities such as clubs, support groups, or recreational programs when possible. Fostering friendships through shared hobbies or interests and exploring opportunities for face-to-face socialization is equally important.
Clear Goals and Achievements
Many games on the market today are designed specifically to trigger our brain's reward system through clear objectives and measurable achievements, offering a sense of purpose and accomplishment.
Polyvagal Perspective: When individuals experience progress or success in gaming, it can activate the ventral vagal system, leading to feelings of satisfaction, accomplishment, safety, and self-worth.
Alternative Strategies: To promote goal-setting and a sense of achievement outside of gaming, parents can help their child set reasonable short and long-term goals in various areas of life, celebrate achievements, and provide rewards. This reinforcement helps individuals develop a sense of accomplishment and success in other domains as well.
Calming and Self-Regulation
Engaging in video games that require focused attention can help with self-regulation and provide a calming effect.
Polyvagal Perspective: Engaging in video games that require focused attention and concentration can help regulate the autonomic nervous system by promoting a state of mindfulness. This state of focused attention can activate the ventral vagal system, fostering a sense of calm and safety.
Alternative Strategies: It is also important to teach alternative relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, or mindfulness exercises. Encouraging engagement in physical activities like exercise or sports promotes emotional regulation outside of gaming.
Common Concerns About Gaming
Parents commonly have several concerns regarding their child playing video games:
Excessive Screen Time
Parents worry about their child spending too much time playing video games, which can lead to neglect of other activities, such as schoolwork, physical exercise, and social interactions.
Perspective: While excessive screen time can be a concern, it's important to recognize that not all screen time is equal. Video games can provide opportunities for learning, problem-solving, and socialization. By setting reasonable limits and ensuring a balance with other activities, video games can be a part of a well-rounded lifestyle.
There is a concern that their child may become addicted to video games, leading to a loss of control over their gaming habits and negative impacts on their overall well-being.
Perspective: While it is essential to be mindful of excessive gaming, it is crucial to remember that not all individuals who play video games become addicted. Most individuals can engage in gaming as a recreational activity without it leading to addiction. For those who tend towards addicted, it is most often a phase that the child passes through. By promoting healthy habits, setting reasonable limits, and fostering a variety of interests, parents can help their child maintain a healthy relationship with gaming.
It is also important to understand what addiction is from a clinical standpoint - an inability to stop using a substance or engaging in a behavior even though it may cause psychological, physical, or relational harm. Perhaps the easiest way to understand addiction is that, when one's overall experience of life is profoundly negative, and an individual finds something that feels good, of course they're going to want to do it all the time. Like with gaming addiction, the key is to find what needs and functions the behavior is serving, and then seek to meet those needs and provide those functions in other, more healthy ways. The opposite of addiction is connection, and the answers usually start there.
Parents worry that excessive gaming may lead to social isolation, as their child may spend more time interacting with virtual worlds and online players rather than engaging in face-to-face interactions with family and friends.
Perspective: Video games, especially online multiplayer games, can offer opportunities for social interaction and connection. Many games encourage teamwork, cooperation, and communication with other players. By selecting games that promote positive social engagement and balancing gaming with offline social activities, parents can mitigate concerns about social isolation.
Parents are concerned about the potential exposure to violent or inappropriate content in video games, which may impact their child's behavior or attitudes.
Perspective: It's important to understand that video games encompass a wide range of genres, and not all games contain violent or inappropriate content. By actively selecting age-appropriate games, using parental controls, and engaging in discussions about game content, parents can help their child make informed choices and develop critical thinking skills.
There is a concern that excessive gaming can interfere with academic performance, leading to lower grades, lack of focus, and reduced motivation for schoolwork.
Perspective: While excessive gaming can impact academic performance, it's essential to note that moderate gaming can have cognitive benefits. Some games require problem-solving, strategic thinking, and decision-making skills. By setting boundaries, establishing a designated study time, and emphasizing the importance of academics, parents can help their child maintain a healthy balance between gaming and schoolwork.
Parents worry about the potential physical health consequences of sedentary gaming habits, such as obesity, poor posture, and sleep disturbances.
Perspective: Sedentary behavior and poor posture can be concerns, but they can be addressed by encouraging regular physical activity, stretching, and taking breaks during gaming sessions. Parents can promote a balance between gaming and physical activities to ensure their child's overall well-being.
Impact on Real-Life Skills
Some parents express concerns that gaming may hinder the development of important real-life skills, such as communication, problem-solving, and time management.
Perspective: Video games can help develop various skills, such as hand-eye coordination, problem-solving, critical thinking, and teamwork. Some games also offer opportunities for creativity and self-expression. By selecting educational and skill-building games, parents can leverage the potential of gaming to enhance real-life skills.
Parents worry about the financial implications of gaming, including excessive spending on in-game purchases, subscriptions, or gaming-related equipment.
Perspective: Parents can mitigate financial concerns by setting limits on in-game purchases, discussing responsible spending habits, and using parental controls to prevent unauthorized transactions. It's crucial to educate children about the value of money and the importance of responsible financial decisions, and gaming can be a great segue into those conversations.
When Gaming Becomes a Problem
Gaming in itself is not a bad thing and can meet many needs for the gamer. But while gaming can provide numerous benefits, it is important to be mindful of when it crosses the line into unhealthy territory. Here are some signs that gaming may become unhealthy:
- Neglect of responsibilities: If gaming starts to lead to neglect of important responsibilities such as schoolwork, work commitments, personal relationships, or self-care, it may be a sign of unhealthy gaming habits.
- Impaired physical health: Spending excessive hours gaming can lead to sedentary behavior, lack of physical activity, poor posture, and potential health issues like sleep disturbances, and musculoskeletal problems. If gaming negatively impacts physical health, it may be a cause for concern.
- Social isolation and withdrawal: If gaming becomes the primary focus of one's life and leads to social withdrawal, neglect of social relationships, and avoidance of real-life interactions, it can be detrimental to mental health and wellbeing.
- Escapism and avoidance: If gaming is primarily used as a means of escaping from real-life challenges, emotions, or responsibilities, and serves as a way to avoid dealing with personal issues, it can be an unhealthy coping mechanism.
- Emotional distress and irritability: It may be time to take a break when gaming leads to increased levels of emotional distress, irritability, and frustration when not gaming or when faced with interruptions or limitations on gaming time.
- Financial consequences: When gaming leads to excessive spending on in-game purchases, subscriptions, or gaming-related equipment, causing financial strain or irresponsibility, it can be an indicator of problematic gaming behavior.
- Negative impact on academic or occupational performance: If gaming interferes with one's ability to concentrate, complete assignments, or perform well academically or professionally, it may be indicative of unhealthy gaming habits.
If you or someone you know exhibits signs of unhealthy gaming habits, it may be helpful to seek support from mental health professionals who specialize in gaming addiction or to explore self-help resources and strategies for managing gaming in a healthier way.
It's important to note that the line between healthy and unhealthy gaming can vary for each individual and their specific circumstances. There are couples who game together and find it strengthens their relationship. And what may be considered excessive or unhealthy for one person may be valuable for another. It's essential to maintain a balance between gaming and other aspects of life, ensuring that gaming does not overshadow important responsibilities, relationships, and overall wellbeing, while recognizing and appreciating the benefits that gaming can provide.
Understanding the functional benefits of video games for children and teenagers can help parents approach gaming concerns with a more informed perspective. By recognizing the needs that gaming fulfills and implementing strategies to address those needs outside of gaming, when necessary, parents can support their child's wellbeing and encourage a balanced lifestyle. Embracing the positive aspects of gaming while promoting diverse interests, physical activity, social interactions, and educational pursuits can create a holistic approach to fostering the growth and development of the child.