Featured Team Members: Mark Sobel, LCSW
Video games are a normal part of many pre-teens’ lives and, when used in moderation, can provide a sense of fun, creativity, and social connection. But when does gaming become a problem? How much is too much? In this blog, Mark Sobel, LCSW, Clinical Therapist for early adolescent boys, discusses the symptoms of excessive gaming and its impacts on pre-teens, how wilderness therapy can help, and what parents can do to support healthier habits in their early adolescent children.
Some studies indicate that, from a developmental standpoint, there are some positives to gaming. Many video games now are three dimensional, so kids can hone their visual spatial skills as they move through different worlds and universes. Gaming can also help develop problem-solving skills, as players must navigate challenges, make plans, and respond to setbacks. Certain games can also provide a sense of social connection because players often need to work collaboratively with other people to accomplish tasks. Finally, some games give kids opportunities to be imaginative and creative as they build worlds and characters. They’re using their brains in nonconcrete ways, which can help improve abstract thinking skills.
Like many things in life, gaming can be positive in moderation. When used excessively, however, the benefits are quickly outweighed.
When evaluating if their child’s game use has become an issue, here are some questions parents can ask themselves:
Does my child prioritize gaming over other important things?
Kids who have an unhealthy relationship with gaming might start neglecting their basic self-care. They might do things like skip meals, miss sleep, stop showering, and forget to change their clothes. A lot of kids have gaming systems in their rooms, which they may try to play after their parents go to bed or immediately after they wake up. If kids are getting up and gaming instead of brushing their teeth or eating breakfast, that’s problematic.
Has gaming become my child’s only source of social connection?
If a kid is only engaging in the relationships they’re finding online and they’re not actually wanting to put in work to make friends in person, that’s another big cue that their excessive gaming has become harmful.
What is my child’s reaction to limits and boundaries set around gaming?
If a child is completely unable to manage and self-regulate when the games have been turned off or a big fight happens every time boundaries are set around how much they play, that is another indication that their relationship with gaming has become unhealthy.
Because of Covid-19, many early adolescents have been isolated inside, already experiencing some baseline anxiety, depression, loneliness, and social isolation. Gaming feels like a way to escape from those things and, in some ways, find community when it’s not possible to be with other people. Gaming also provides instant gratification and a sense of mastery over one’s environment. It’s easy to see why they’re so appealing. We can all benefit from a little escapism and a sense of control, but excessive gaming provides these things in very heavy doses in a domain that’s not actually interactive with other people.
When early adolescents fall into a pattern of isolating, avoiding, and spending a lot of time in front of a screen by themselves, their family and peer relationships suffer. Also, for kids who are predisposed to anxiety and depression, physical activity is one of the most effective tools for supporting and managing mood, so a sedentary lifestyle in front of a screen is going to take a toll on both physical and mental health. It becomes a very slippery slope.
Wilderness therapy offers many of the same things kids are looking for in games but in a healthy, more interactive way. It provides a sense of mastery and competency in a varied environment that involves the whole body and requires being in relationship with other human beings.
Space for Reflection
First and foremost, wilderness therapy creates an environment where the stressors and temptations of games are simply not an option. Students don’t have access to computers, phones, or devices. In our fast-pasted 21st century world where technology is everywhere, there is something so empowering about returning to the outdoors and learning to care for ourselves. It taps into a basic, human part of us that often lies dormant.
For students who may have been using gaming to tune out difficult emotions or avoid working through conflicts or challenges, wilderness therapy can support them in addressing underlying issues associated with excessive gaming. At Open Sky, students practice healthy coping strategies, such as breathing techniques, yoga and hiking, journaling, and other wellness activities, to better support themselves moving forward.
While social relationships formed online can be real and important, it’s crucial that students learn how to connect and navigate relationships in the non-virtual world. In wilderness, early adolescents are part of a group. They have consistent in-person, social interactions to help them build social and relational skills, practice assertive communication, and improve emotional awareness, expression, and connection.
Resiliency and Competency
In wilderness, students experience and respond to a variety of challenging situations, which helps them become more self-reliant and resilient. Building resilience is directly tied to a sense of confidence. Wilderness therapy helps show kids they are capable, even when they may not think they are. There’s something undeniable about the feeling that comes with doing something you thought you couldn’t do.
Students also have many opportunities to feel a sense of competency and mastery. In games, players are in control of everything in their environments, which can be good for problem solving but not good for frustration tolerance. In wilderness, students develop that sense of mastery while also learning the difference between what they can and can’t control. They can’t control the weather. They can’t control the behaviors of other people. They can’t control the environment or the guides, but they can control themselves and their responses and attitudes.
Wilderness serves to reorient behaviors. It teaches students emotional regulation and communication skills that they can draw upon when they reenter a world where gaming is a readily accessible option and temptation. Still, it can be a big ask to expect a 14-year-old to prioritize something like yoga or journaling over their Xbox. This is where parents play a big role in helping their child maintain the skills they learned in wilderness.
The number one thing parents can do is set limits and boundaries around game use, make expectations clear, and then uphold those limits, boundaries, and expectations in a consistent way. This sounds so simple, yet parents have likely already tried and struggled to set boundaries before seeking wilderness therapy. This is why Open Sky’s family systems approach is so vital. Because parents engage in their own therapeutic work alongside their child, the entire family experiences a greater chance of having more productive and effective conversations around boundaries and game use after wilderness. Together, they have developed the skills to improve communication, increase emotional regulation, and strengthen relationships.
Increase Awareness and Intention
Another important thing parents can do is become really cognizant of and intentional with the behaviors they’re modeling. After all, 13 and 14 year-olds are the best hypocrisy detectors on the planet! I recommend parents look inward and evaluate what their own relationship with technology is. Are they always on their phones? Are they answering work emails during dinner?
When parents are able to answer these questions honestly, they can then provide their child an environment surrounded by people who understand the temptations and challenges of excessive gaming. Maybe they create sacred family times and spaces where there is no technology, and that applies to everyone. Perhaps they help their child draw parallels between what at Open Sky made them feel connected and competent and how they can find that in their lives at home. To be in it together is powerful.
Practice Empathy and Moderation
Finally, parents can practice empathy. Since the pandemic began, we’ve all become more dependent on technology for escapism and establishing community. We use Zoom and FaceTime to go to school and work and stay in touch with family and friends. While excessive gaming can be isolating and harmful, moderate gaming might provide kids with a real sense of connection and community. If parents try to yank that away completely, there is likely going to be grief, sadness, and anger involved. Gaming and technology are a part of our world. The goal is not to have a complete lack of relationship with technology but to work toward a relationship that is healthy and balanced.