Video gaming, especially online multiplayer gaming, is becoming a major problem for parents and teachers all over the world. Since last few years, or probably in the last decade, the children as young as 6-7 years old are seen engaging in regular gaming on computers, mobiles, or internet. Adolescents (teenagers) and young adults (in the early 20s) are generally affected the most. Parents are worried and are not able to manage this unusual behavior in their children. Problematic gaming effects family environment at home because parents observe the unhealthy impact of gaming on children. For example, poor performance in academics, increased anger and irritability, neglect of personal hygiene and care, lack of social life and absence of life goals. These issues are of concern to parents, teachers as well as mental health professionals who work with this population of youth.
Psychologists quite often receive complaints from parents about the problematic gaming behaviors in adolescents. While working with these young clients, it is often expected that children should be counseled for their excessive use of games. Many therapists provide individual counseling and therapy sessions to children in order to help them in reducing this abnormal urge to play games. Abnormal because many professionals see this internet gaming as a kind of addiction. A conventional mode of working with youth is generally implemented where primary work is done with children, and few family counseling sessions are conducted. Many therapists provide verbal or written instructions to parents about the necessary steps to be taken at home. This all seems quite usual and obvious.
A persistent concern among mental health professionals arises when they have to deal with the parental beliefs that only the child needs counseling. Occasional or no family sessions are of less benefits. Parents approach the psychologists with a belief that since the child doesn't listen to them and has become disobedient, so he needs someone who can tell him or guide him about all what they are not able to do. They need another agent of moral control for the child! Parents often complain about the child's lack of control, anger, poor study habits, lifestyle, neglect of academics etc. The focus is mainly on blaming the child for his behaviors and excessive gaming. Much of this belief is fueled by the teachers who constantly blame parents or the child for such issues. In such a situation, the expectations take a toll, supplemented by worries, and the people in the family look for an appropriate target of blame. But the lack of understanding of the whole issue narrows down the strategic efforts of parents and the most vulnerable cause of such problems is held responsible, that is the child himself. This sounds apt and valid, but the problem has deeper causes in the family context. From an objective, layman's point of view, the child seems to be the reason for his gaming behaviors. But from a professional, psychological point of view, family interactions and relationships are most probable and potential causes. This assertion needs elaboration and is discussed below.
The child is part of the family and regular way of interactions at home determines the responses of the child. Not only the child but all family members are also part of a dynamic system of interchangeable expectations and emotions. We develop certain patterns in our styles of communications at home. In fact, this happens in all relationships. Due to these patterns, we become habitual to respond to others in a certain predictable manner. If a parent would always shout at the child when he plays the game, the general response of the child at that time would be avoidance or shouting. He would either throw something, or shout back, or avoid the parental interaction. A parent can notice many such constant patterns of communication with the child at home. It is advisable to notice such habitual patterns among other family members too. These behaviors are not just words, but emotions are also communicated during interactions. Shouting implies anger, throwing implies aggression, avoidance implies sadness or anxiety. Such ways of communication, become repetitive and gradually we become distressed at our inability to change things. We focus on behaviors, but the problem lies in communication. If we can do something about these habitual exchanges of words and emotions, behaviors can be expected to change.
This is what we expect from a psychologist who would "talk" in a way that would convince the child of changing his behaviors. A psychologist doesn't just talk differently, it's not the use of some specific words or phrases (like proverbs or quotes) that matter, but the way those words are communicated. Emotional exchanges by the therapist have the potential to cause change, not simply words. But those words and ways of the therapist have little impact if parents continue their same ways at home. Those parents who expect that the therapist would tell something magical, are misjudging the work of a therapist. Many times, the words are the same, but the focus of work is totally different. That is the role of the therapist here. He or she may talk in the language a parent best understands, but what the therapist intends to do is important to know. A therapist may ask the parent to change their emotional ways of communication at home, that doesn't mean the therapist is not doing his or her work and putting the burden of change on parents. Parents need to understand the dynamics of relationships in the family and the contribution of everyday emotional words on the mental health of the child as well as others.
The love and care of parents are not sufficient to help the child in dealing with problematic gaming. The effect of negative emotions of parents is equally responsible. Helping a child involves more of positive emotions and less of negative emotions in everyday communications. I would like to discuss the findings from a recent study by a group of researchers that throw light on the effect of parent-child interaction on the gaming behaviors of the child. Li and her colleagues (2018) studied 241 parent-child dyads (a relationship between 2 people) for a period of 12 months to see the effects of parental behaviors on the gaming habits of children. Children were in the age range of 8-15 years while parents were in the age range of 27-63 years. They asked the parents to videotape their interactions (discussion of problems and solutions on some common areas of family conflicts like chores) with the child for 10 minutes through which they identified 5 aspects of that interaction and rated them. These aspects were - positive affectivity, negative affectivity, cohesiveness, coerciveness, and emotional support. Let me first define these terms below (based on the SCIFF coding system by Lindahl and Malik, 2001).
Coerciveness is an aspect that is based on the frequency with which a parent makes threatening or manipulative statements to the child, bullies the child, or uses a threatening tone or body language. For example, a parent can be coercive by making statements such as, "Only babies fight over toys with their brother. You don't want to be a baby, do you?"
Positive Affect reflects the degree to which the parent seems happy or satisfied, or expresses warmth.
Negative Affect reflects the degree to which the parent seems sad or disappointed, or expresses anger.
Cohesiveness represents the sense of unity, togetherness, and closeness within a family. The degree of cohesiveness in a family is related to the extent to which family members are affectionate, respectful, and warm with each other. For highly cohesive families, there is a sense of mutual appreciation between the family members as they work together toward a common goal.
Emotional support is based on the responsiveness of the parent, respect for the child's autonomy and positive regard during the child's activities or achievements.
These are just a few aspects of the family interactions between children and parents. As one can see, these are very crucial aspects of any parent-child dyad. Other than these, children filled an internet gaming addiction scale. Both parents and children also rated the exposure of children to violent video games. This way three different types of scores were acquired. Scientists measured the scores of children's gaming addiction and their exposure to violent games at two times - beginning of the study and after a 12-month period. As we can see, scientists attempted to see if the parent-child interaction styles in the beginning, which would remain constant throughout the year, have any effect on the gaming addiction of the child 1 year later. Researchers then analyzed the data after one year through statistical tests. They found a major role played by positive and negative affectivity of parents in sustaining the gaming habits of children.
Results found that cohesiveness and positive affect are strongly associated with internet gaming but in the opposite direction. That means when there is more of internet gaming, cohesiveness and positive affectivity in relationships are less. In other words, when cohesiveness and positive emotions in parent-child relationships are more, children less frequently play internet games. We may think of why this is true. If parents and children spend more time at home together, involve in cooperative activities more, exchange positive emotions among each other more, the children feel less need to spend time on internet games. We can also foresee some other aspects to this result. Since parent-child relations are cohesive, it is easier for children to listen to their parents about matters of discipline (like time and schedule of studies and gaming etc.). The decisions are mutual and parents also listen to the child's demands positively. Because cooperation is more.
Results also found that coerciveness at Time 1 (beginning) of the study predicts internet gaming in children 1 year later at Time 2. That means if parents - restrict children a lot, criticize them more, humiliate them in front of others (even other family members), blame them or complain about them often, show anger or threaten them about taking away their favorite objects (even games or mobiles) - in such cases, children play internet games more. This may look unusual to many parents that why children do the opposite of what they are told. After all, parents do all this for the benefit of the child. The researchers suggest two possible reasons for this. Children find an escape into video games due to such interactions on a daily basis. If parents criticize often, then the child tries to remain away from parents in order to prevent any confrontation. He knows that he may get angry or may have to listen to obvious threats. So video gaming is a better escape. The other reason being the search for emotional connection and healthy social bonds on the internet. The child makes many social connections through the internet and interacts in many ways with the pupils of his age. Most of them are adolescents, and hence form a bond easily. So to seek healthy relationships and avoid painful interactions at home, the child plays video games more.
The most interesting results from the study are about positive and negative affectivity at Time 1 and its effects on internet gaming and exposure to violent games at Time 2. It was found that positive emotional exchanges at Time 1 reduce the exposure to violent games in children at Time 2. Similarly, in those families where negative emotions were high, children spend more time playing violent video games even one year later. The matters become more serious when we see that high positive emotions are not effective in reducing internet gaming when negative emotions are also high. That means those parents who express love and care, feel happy about their child's behaviors, express their confidence in the child and feel proud of him, if they express sadness and anger equally highly on child's misbehaviors, then also children play more internet games. Many parents follow principles and rules that the child should be praised for good behaviors but criticized and scolded for bad behaviors. They care a lot for their children, but when the child's complaints are frequent, one or both parents express their anger a lot such that the child has high fear for his parents. And fear induces avoidance, which leads to escape and more internet gaming.
Last interesting finding of the study indicated that positive emotional reactions measured at the beginning of the study effected in reducing internet gaming after 1 year when negative emotional interactions were less. This implies that positive relations work well when negativity is also reduced. This finding has many implications for the treatment of this behavioral "addiction" in children. In the words of the authors,
"The results imply that to protect children from adverse consequences of gaming, parents, and children may want to consider being more mindful about the emotional messages that they are conveying to each other. It may not only be important to keep conversations light-hearted and pleasant, but may also be crucial to avoid being emotionally volatile during communications."
Parents must focus on using their words and emotional expressions with caution. Being mindful means that parents must be aware of the impact of their words on the emotional health of their children. A parent may feel angry but expressing it by scolding and shouting by losing control of themselves would only invite a similar reaction from the child. On the other hand, parents may express their concern towards the child by knowing that he is undergoing stress due to his uncontrollable behaviors and needs help rather than discipline with coerciveness. The help of a psychologist is crucial. Family should not feel any stigma in contacting a professional counselor. Parents must understand that the child is not intentionally disobedient and is not solely responsible for his addictive behaviors. He is part of a family system whose internal dynamics make it difficult for the child to seek healthy expressions of his emotions. He doesn't enjoy being angry. He is not happy when he breaks things or shouts. He is experiencing emotional pain which needs parental warmth and no hostility. For this, parents must seek their own counseling or therapy in improving their positive emotions and reducing their negative emotions. They must encourage other family members to make changes in themselves. It is for the betterment of the whole family that the members make changes in their emotionality. The scientists suggest parents must model the behavior they want to see in the child. That means they should use their own mobiles less, cut their own durations of social media usage and gaming (if they also play, which is common these days), express positive emotions and regulate their negative emotions which the child would learn directly from them. Children model (copy) their parents and therefore parents must take responsibility for this change first.
As Parker (and colleagues) said, parents must choose between either parental control or parental care.