When Alok Kanojia, MD, MPH (aka Dr. K) was a sophomore in college, he was on academic probation and inching towards failing out. Like many college students in tough situations, Dr. K’s academic troubles had formed because he was self-medicating, but not with the more typical drugs or alcohol. His vice-of-choice was video games.
“As I was literally failing out of college, I would wake up every day and sort of think about, oh my God, I’m failing,” he says now. “This is not like a problem I can solve right this second, so let me play a game. And while I was playing the game, I stopped thinking about how I was ruining my life.” That’s the vicious cycle video games can hold over players, and it’s one Dr. K knows all too well.
You might expect this story to be leading to a moment when Dr. K got “sober” and stopped gaming. But that’s not what happened. He changed his mindset—he went to India, discovered yoga and meditation, and then went to medical school at Harvard to become a psychiatrist focusing in complementary and alternative medicine—but gaming was still very much a part of his life. As he grew his following on Twitch, he realized there was an unmet mental health need for gamers, and he was the perfect person to provide it. His resource Healthy Gamer was born.
Dr. K was surprised to hear many of the queries Healthy Gamer was fielding weren’t coming from the gamers themselves, but from their parents. “You can be a fantastic parent, but this is a multi-billion dollar industry that is designed to engage [your kid],” he explains. “If they can engage them, they get money. There’s an arms race going on, and the one person who always loses is the user.” And parents—who may or may not have grown up gaming, and may or may not know anything about the effect it has on kids—are left to pick up the pieces.
Dr. K, author of the new book How to Raise a Healthy Gamer, lays out strategies for parents on how we can guide our kids through—or circumvent—gaming addictions.
How to help your child have a healthy relationship with video games
Understand how screen/video game time affects them
How does one raise a “healthy gamer”? Is there any such thing? Do we need to just keep our kids away from games entirely? “If we think about our job as a parent, it’s to prepare our children to succeed in the world,” says Dr. K. “But insulating them from something is not the same as preparing them.” In fact, both of Dr. K’s children, who are 6 and 8, play video games.
And here’s an example of how Dr. K gets them to think about their screen time more thoughtfully, to help keep them from ending up where he did. “Let’s say we watch an hour of TV on Saturday morning. At the end of the hour, I’d ask, do y’all wanna stop? They say, of course not. So you watch for 30 more minutes. Then I ask: did you have as much fun in the second 30 minutes as you did in the first hour? Is this more or less fun?”
When the TV goes off, he’d take them to the playground and ask a similar question: do you want to leave the playground and go home and watch TV, or is this more fun? “What I really try to encourage my kids to do is understand the impact of the device on them.”
“Another big principle is giving them choice,” he says. “Helping them understand, OK, you can do this now or you can do this later. It strengthens their frontal lobes because it allows them to delay gratification.” That said, if they’re choosing to game so much that they’ve got an impairment in their daily life (grades slipping, they seem isolated, moody, combative), you should intervene.
“Our approach at Healthy Gamer is, first of all, you can’t be sober for someone else. So the person who has the behavior has to be a willing participant in restraint.” Dr. K notes that he often recommends teaching restraint over restriction.
But how do you help kids want to game less? “We encourage communication and alliance building. Oftentimes, games are a retreat from another problem. Ask your children what’s really going on.” They might be being bullied, or having a hard time making friends, and games might be providing an escape from all that. And that’s not inherently bad, at face value.
“We strongly encourage parents to ask their kids what they like about games. Your protective instinct as a parent kicks in: If your child is playing with a sharp knife, take it away. The challenge though is that when we take it away, we sometimes run into their resistance because they are getting some of their needs met. If we think about a child who is getting bullied, all of their friends are online. So when you’re taking away their game, you’re not taking away a game. You’re taking away their social outlet.”
It might be surprising to hear, but Dr. K recommends against taking away their games or consoles. And tell them you’re not going to take them away. You can set limits, yes, but they need to know that being honest with you won’t result in their social outlet being taken fully away.
This is really hard for parents, but if you give lots of warnings (repeating “five more minutes!” or “If you do that again, I’ll take away your Switch”) without actually following through on the consequence, you’re teaching your kid to push the limits. “What we oftentimes will train our children to do is to actually ignore our words, because there’s no consequence. Mom or dad tells you to stop—nothing happens. Tells you again to stop—nothing happens. Now you’ve trained them: Hey, when I say stop, it doesn’t actually mean you need to stop.” It’s hard to do, but you’ve got to mean what you say. “If you really want your child to be responsible, you have to give them the responsibility. And that sometimes means bad grades, or forgetting things. And that’s how your child is really going to learn.”
Add, not subtract
If you get to the root of the issue and it is social anxiety, or being bullied, or not connecting with a peer group, Dr. K finds that often kids and teens want to fix their issues with a solution other than gaming, they just don’t know how. Rather than take away that outlet, introduce new outlets, such as extracurriculars, that can work to eventually satisfy their need better than gaming. “As you play more games, your social skills atrophy harder. It is never going to fix the problem.”
But stay involved as you work together to find something that can serve the same purpose. Show them your support by asking them to work through what makes them nervous about the new activity, or setting a goal for how many times they should commit to going. “Really getting them involved in the process, and really trying to fix the problems that they have in their life is key,” he says. “Once you start living a life that’s worth living where your needs are met and you’re challenged and you’re growing and you have a community, the gaming just melts away.”