Dear Dr. Geek,
My son plays video games all the time and doesn't seem to want to do anything else. He has difficulties with his interpersonal relationships and only wants to play with his video game friends. I'm concerned because these people aren't real friends like he has at school, and I am worried about him. I fear that he is addicted to video games. What should I do?
Dear Concerned Mother,
Playing video games online is not necessarily a bad thing for your son to do. The online friendships are real friendships even though they are primarily media and technology based. Communication is still occurring; it's just been changed overall through the different medium of the video game itself. This does not mean it is bad or good, but that it's just different. To say he is having difficulties with his relationships may be a stretch too far, as it appears he's able to handle his relationships online to a varying degree. As technology increases and continues to change the world we know today, it is important to take into consideration that we need to change with the times as well. Just because a video gamer plays with a group of people online does not mean that they are not real friendships. I would caution you to use different terminology, as saying they are not "real" kind of invalidates his experience and may cause some disruption in your home and relationship with him. Instead, I would encourage you to ask more questions about his video gaming habits and see where it takes you. When I work with families in similar situations, it generally helps to have the parents show interest in their child's interests which is an easy way to build a good and healthy family bond.
As for the addiction portion, we currently do not have a defined aspect of video game addiction. The current criteria is shoddy at best and was just extrapolated from substance abuse without much thought put into the culture of video games and gamers alike. There is a plethora of research showing that video games can have extremely beneficial aspects to them and increase self-confidence and moral of the person playing them. Additionally, there is a movement against the current condition of video game addiction which point out these immensely flawed criteria and approach. We do not know what will come of it, but we do know as it currently stands, it bastardizes a pleasurable pastime and isolates video gamers. As a clinical psychologist, we cannot use this as a basis for a term of addiction.
More than likely, your son wants to feel closer to another individual or group of people who understand him on a better level more attuned to his current situation in life. This is where his video game buds online come into play. They likely go through similar events and experiences, have parents who do not understand video gaming and also do not allow them to be themselves. Ask your son about his gaming and start a conversation about it. If you are still worried, impose some limits, but try to understand where he's coming from and what he may get out of it. This is where most parents need to begin when they feel their child is playing too much.
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Dr. Anthony Bean is a Licensed Psychologist in Fort Worth, Texas specializing in video games, therapy, geekiness, and virtual worlds.