Level up: New series provides parents education on video game addiction, other topics

For decades, children and young adults have delved into the fictitious worlds of video games. According to a recent study by the World Health Organization, experts say the leisurely activity that millions around the globe enjoy can negatively affect the user’s life, sometimes leading to addiction.

This fall, the Hopewell Valley Municipal Alliance (HVMA) is partnering with outpatient rehabilitation and mental health facility High Focus Centers, located in Lawrenceville, to educate local parents on a variety of topics relating to school, stress and addiction.

The first presentation of the Fall Parent Series took place on Oct. 11 and gave parents an overview of video game addiction, how it can affect a child and how to navigate parenting in the digital age.

According to Michael McCann, clinical director at High Focus Centers, children between the ages of 8 and 12 years old spend an average of six hours a day using media outside of school. When they become teenagers, that number goes up to nine hours a day. Additionally, he said, 38 percent of college students can’t go more than 10 minutes without using their smartphones.

“We all do that, and for teenagers and young adults, this is something that is becoming an epidemic,” he said.

When it comes to Internet Gaming Disorder, 8.5 percent of Americans aged 8 to 18, 6 to 13 percent of the overall American population and 13 to 19 percent of young adults meet the criteria.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and High Focus Centers Clinician Mary-Kate Harty, Internet Gaming Disorder is defined as the “repetitive use of internet-based games, often with other players, that lead to significant issues of functioning.”

Five of the criteria must be met within one year to be considered an “addiction,” she said.

The most popular games among adolescents and young adults, Harty said, include: mobile online battle arena (MOBA) games like League of Legends; open world role-playing games like The Witcher and Fallout; massive multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPG) like World of Warcraft, first person shooters like Call of Duty, battle royales like Fortnite and mobile games like Candy Crush.

So what makes video games so addicting? According to Harty, a fantasy aspect, the storylines, the game’s time-intensive nature and — for some games — the inability to press “pause” are among the factors.

“Because of the way games are made now and because patches of downloadable content come out for games all the time, your favorite game doesn’t just end,” she said. “Suddenly now they will have four new levels for you to try. So it’s endless.”

While Harty said video games can have rewarding qualities, like social reinforcement and a sense of accomplishment, they can cause players to experience negative consequences, such as sleep deprivation, depression, anxiety and “gamer rage.”

“If you have kids who play, I’m sure you’ve seen [them] throwing the controllers, throwing the headset, things like that,” Harty said to the parents in attendance. “You get an increase in adrenaline, so it’s brought on very intensely.”

McCann offered parents advice and skills to use if video games are occupying their child’s time, such as making an effort to “understand the language” of the games their child plays.

“When you say, ‘It’s time to take out the garbage, pause your game,’ that’s not an option often times,” he said. “It needs to be, ‘What game are you playing? When can you take out the garbage?’ And you set the limit. You can say, ‘At the end of this match that you’re playing, can you take out the garbage?’”

One of the hardest things a parents can do, McCann said, is to listen to their child without judgement. Providing guidance, support and acting as a caregiver instead of a caretaker can help a child who experiences emotional reactions to video games, he said.

McCann also suggesting engaging in other activities that encourage and increase movement or a connection to nature, as they can allow a child or young adult to move into recovery from technology addiction.

Harty stressed the importance of mindfulness, such as having dinner as a family with no screens or driving without the radio on. The Hopewell Valley Regional School District has recently implemented a social-emotional curriculum to help promote the idea of mindfulness and living in the present moment.

“Often times we are too busy thinking about things in the past we can’t change or worrying about things in the future that we can’t control and we’re not living completely in the present moment,” she said. “Technology distracts from being aware in the present moment.”

If there are deeper underlying issues, such as pre-existing or increasing anxiety or depressive disorders, therapy or medications may be an option, McCann said.

“There are times that, no matter what you can try to do as a parent, you need help,” he said.

McCann and Harty told parents that, given the statistics and advice, it is ultimately up to them to decide how much screen time is appropriate for their child, as many video game levels vary in length.

“It’s not realistic to say they can’t play them anymore, so we kind of have to tailor the parenting styles around that, which is unfortunate, but a reality,” Harty said.

Heidi Kahme, HVMA coordinator, said that those at High Focus Centers see many children from Hopewell, and created the series based on the most common conditions and situations that they see come into their facility.

“All we’re talking about [is the] youth in our community and what we can do to make sure that they are growing up healthy, safe and responsible, so when this program came to our attention, I thought, ‘We have to be able to show this,’” said Kahme.

The partnership with High Focus Centers came about after High Focus Community Liaison Lisel Cox began attending HVMA meetings two years ago.

“Being a mental health provider, I felt that I should give back and provide our expertise, and partnering with the alliance to create this program for the parents,” Cox said. “It’s education, it creates conversation for either the next series or just among each other.”

Kahme echoed this sentiment and hopes that, through the series, parents receive an education on the topics being discussed..

“I think knowledge is power, I think the more information that parents can have to better raise children, the better off everyone is going to be, and the better off the children will be,” she said. “I definitely feel that parents will walk away with tools that they can use as their kids grow up.”

The next presentation in the series, “Keeping Healthy Kids Healthy: Preventing Addiction in the Family” will take place on Oct. 25, and the final presentation, “Simplify Your Stress: Tips and Tools for Caring for Yourself and Family” will take place Nov. 1. Both presentations will be held in the Central High School Media Center at 7 p.m.

To register for the Fall Parent Series, email your name, your child’s age and program selection to hvmunicipalalliance@gmail.com.