Is there any doubt in anyone's mind that we're strongly affected by our environment? People immersed in porn think more sexual thoughts, soldiers in battle become hypersensitized to danger (often for the rest of their lives, as in serious cases of post-traumatic stress disorder), and so on. And if common sense isn't enough, studies have proven that our mood and behavior can be significantly affected by almost everything around us, including such "minor" influences as room temperature and noise.
The brains of children are even more susceptible to external influences than adults are, to the point that many experts refer to the neurologic systems of children as plastic, or moldable. It should be no surprise, then, to learn that children are profoundly affected by the media--television and video games, for example--they watch.
Children who watch violent television and play violent video games have been demonstrated to be more likely to exhibit violent emotions, thought patterns, and behavior. Children participating in simulated violence were found to be more likely as adults to engage in spousal abuse, assault, robbery, and threats of injury to others. Of course these behaviors correlate with an increase in criminal conviction.
Watching violence desensitizes children and increases the likelihood of their imitating the violence they see. Perhaps more subtly, violence also causes children to view other human beings as objects, which decreases the ability of children to bond with other people or care about their welfare. Even if media are not violent, excessive participation affects children in a great many other ways. Business leaders everywhere are noticing that young job applicants are increasingly unable to communicate clearly, having been affected by the mind numbing effects of texting, video games, and more.
Millions of Americans are so hooked on television and video games that they fit the criteria for substance abuse as defined in the official psychiatric manual. Heavy media users usually exhibit six dependency symptoms--three more than necessary to arrive at a clinical diagnosis of substance abuse--including:
1. Using media as a sedative or pain reliever. The viewer consistently uses media to relieve stress.
2. Indiscriminate viewing--almost any content is acceptable, without thought for the suitability or effect of the content.
3. Feeling loss of control while viewing. The viewing takes over. The viewer doesn't think about the importance of other responsibilities or people.
4. Feeling angry with oneself for watching too much. After viewing, the viewer often recognizes the waste of time and effort and wishes he had been wiser.
5. Inability to stop watching.
6. Feeling miserable when kept from watching. This might be an indisputable test for addiction of many kinds. Suppose a child watches television or plays video games just for relaxation or entertainment--in a non-addictive way. If you ask him to stop and do something else, it's not a problem. He can easily get up from his chair and do something else. If a child is addicted, however, and you require him to stop viewing, there is often an eruption of temper. When addicts can't consume media, they become argumentative, withdrawn, and irritable with family members.
So it's not really debatable that excessive video gaming is harmful. It's a true addiction. How much viewing is acceptable? There are a number of ways to answer that question, but for now consider whether your child has three or more of the symptoms listed above.
What can you do about it if your child is already a media--television, computer, video games, texting, and more--addict? The treatment of addiction includes the 4 R's, as follows (almost like Readin', Ritin, and 'Rithmetic, isn't it?):
4. Recovery and rehabilitation.
1. We've already talked about recognition, but this is far trickier than simply looking at the list of symptoms. You have to be willing to honestly determine if your child has these symptoms. It's easy to minimize these behaviors in your child, and your child will certainly minimize them. Addicts and their families are notorious for lying about the criteria for their addictions.
2. Responsibility. Recognition is difficult enough, but it's far more difficult for parents to assume the bulk of the responsibility for the child's addiction. Addiction is not a disease. It's a response to pain, and invariably the pain our children are responding to is the lack of Real Love in their lives. That is our responsibility. Easily the most difficult thing we'll ever do as parents is to see and admit our responsibility for our children's pain.
Not only are we responsible for the vast majority of the pain in our children's lives, we are also responsible for the media addiction they've chosen to numb their pain. With rare exceptions, children don't introduce themselves to television watching. They don't buy the Xboxes or video games or computers or cell phones that almost become extensions of their fingers and heads. No, we are their drug dealers, and our shame over that truth--mostly unconscious--often keeps us from recognizing and treating the problem.
3. Removal. I've been involved in addiction recovery--my own and others'--for several decades, and I've discovered that it's rarely effective, if ever, to recommend a slow taper from the current dose of alcohol or drug use, for example. There are a number of reasons for that, and we'll name just a couple. Everybody knows that it's less painful to take a Band-Aid off quickly, rather than peeling it off a millimeter at a time. Similarly, each decrease in the level of involvement in an addiction--to alcohol, drugs, sex, and media--results in the pain of withdrawal. If the withdrawal is gradual, the pain lasts much longer, and the pain of a gradual withdrawal isn't that much less than with a complete withdrawal.
Another reason that rapid withdrawal is preferred is that gradual withdrawal requires a series of wise decisions. The judgment of an addict, however, is significantly impaired--often nullified--by use of his substance, even though it might be "just" a video game.
So what could removal of media of any kind look like?
Let's watch a child, Mike, who is playing a video game. His mother, Stephanie, enters the room and says, "Mike, are your chores finished?"
There is no answer from Mike, so Stephanie repeats the question. Again, no response.
This is where most parents really screw up. They begin to compete with the video game. They call out the child's name over and over, rapidly raising the volume with each repetition. They adopt a pleading tone, or they became angrier. But this is all just manipulation and a failure to remember that children need to be lovedandtaught--a single word stating that children need to be taught while simultaneously loved with an absence of any Getting and Protecting Behavior.
In circumstances similar to those above, if parents repeat a question more than twice, they're failing to recognize that the child is already demonstrating at least two signs of addiction: loss of control and inability to stop watching. Addicts simply do not respond to begging, pleading, or intimidation. Parents need to move to the Removal step.
Stephanie had recently been schooled in the treatment of addiction, so after her son ignored her twice, she calmly and firmly walked over to the Xbox and pushed the power button. The game was over, completely removing the addictive substance from Mike. You can't negotiate with an addict. They come up with every excuse in the world to continue their addictive behavior. You simply remove the substance or behavior they use. With an adult addict, his or her agreement is required. This agreement is not required with a child addict, although Stephanie had previously discussed with Mike what would happen if he failed to listen to her while playing a video game.
How did Mike respond? He erupted in a fit of temper. He stomped up and down and yelled at his mother in a highly disrespectful tone. At this point almost all parents negotiate with their children. They agree to turn the game back on if the child will stop fussing or if he will do the chores. They give the child a few more minutes before the chore has to be done. And so on.
When Mike exploded in anger, he fulfilled at least five of the criteria for a media addiction:
1. Inability to stop watching.
2. Feeling miserable when kept from watching.
3. Using media as a sedative or pain reliever. With his family and others, Mike was irritable most of the time, his explosion at his mother being just one confirmation of an overall pattern. Anger is a reaction to pain, so his consistent anger was proof of his general emotional discomfort, which was relieved by his use of video games.
4. Indiscriminate viewing. When Mike's mother interrupted his game, it wasn't at a particularly important moment in the game. Nothing terrible happened. Mike was pacified by virtually any video game or television show, anything that distracted him from the emptiness in his life.
5. Loss of control while viewing. While Mike was playing his game, he could not remember his responsibilities, which had been clearly explained to him. He couldn't even hear his mother when she spoke to him.
As Mike was having a tantrum, his mother remained utterly calm. She raised her hand, which prompted Mike to stop for a moment to listen to what she had to say. "Would you like to continue being angry," she said, "or would you like to talk about this?"
Mike resumed his rant, so Stephanie--following the guidance of coaching she had just received--unplugged the Xbox and picked it up. Mike was alarmed and demanded to know what she was doing.
"It's my responsibility as your mother," Stephanie said, "to love you and teach you to be happy. It's obvious that your playing of video games is interfering with your happiness, so I'm helping you to overcome this problem."
When Mike screamed his disapproval, Stephanie said, "I'm putting the Xbox away for thirty days. You can stop yelling, and we'll discuss this, or you can keep yelling, and I'll put it away for even longer. It's your choice: thirty days or much longer."
Without meaning to, when parents "give in" to tantrums like this, they're actually training their children to use tantrums to get what they want. Parents must diligently avoid such negative training.
Mike stopped yelling and listened while his mother explained that his video gaming was affecting his happiness, his interactions with family members, his homework, his lessons in responsibility at home, and more. She gave him examples to illustrate each negative effect. He argued with her, of course, but she explained his addiction and the need for him to learn lessons in life far more important than how to successfully move to the next level in a particular game.
Mike certainly didn't like the Removal process, but over the following weeks he became calmer, more cooperative, and more responsible. In great measure, his improvement resulted from Stephanie's implementation of Step 4 of addiction treatment: Recovery and rehabilitation. She had family meetings with Mike every day. They read from the Real Love in Parenting book. She gave him more responsibilities around the house and required accountability from him for those assignments. She taught him to be loving, by word and by her example. It's not enough to simply remove an addictive substance or behavior from an addict, which simply stops the continuing damage. They need to feel loved and be taught correct principles, which allows the building of true emotional, spiritual, and physical strength.
Some parents say, "But my child gets good grades in school and does her chores around the house. So then is it all right for her to play video games?"
We still must look for all the signs of addiction, as previously listed. Children can be responsible but still addicted. Countless alcoholics and addicts have claimed that they are not addicted because they hold a steady job, for example, but they're still addicted and experience serious disability in relationships, personal happiness, and elsewhere.
Even if a child demonstrates no signs of addiction, parents need to ask whether media use interferes with more useful activities. For years I was a Boy Scout leader, and when I began the job the boys were primarily playing basketball each week during the meeting time. Okay, basketball is fun and has physical and other benefits, but there were so many other ways they could have expanded their opportunities to learn and grow. So I exposed them to rappeling, rock climbing, spelunking (exploring caves), hiking, camping, cooking, community service, team handball, axe throwing, clearing trees, national and local history, canoeing, and far more. Children need a wide variety of experiences to widen their perspectives, teach them responsibility, and more.
Parents need to have family meetings several times a week, teach children how to be responsible and loving, and give them a spectrum of experiences that will prepare them to feel confident and happy. Video games, computers, and cell phones are not inherently bad, but excessive use of them simply limits a child's experience. Consider allowing a child to use media for a certain number of minutes per day, and then make it clear that if that time is exceeded--a clear sign of loss of control, one of the criteria for addiction--the media will be removed for a considerable period. Explain that you will not nag, plead, or become angry. You will teach the point simply by removing the media involved. Moreover, the content of media will be regularly and randomly reviewed. You will be the approving authority for all video games and television viewing, and you will have access to all websites viewed and all texts sent. The responsibility for raising loving, responsible, and happy children is a significant one, and it cannot be ignored without unspeakably serious consequences.