When Your Child Is Addicted to Video Games

We were on the road, driving our oldest son home from his freshman year in college, when the moment of clarity hit.

“Mom, I’ve been in bed for the past week,” Adam said. “I didn’t leave my dorm room. I didn’t finish my classes. That video game did something to me.”

I’ll never forget the shock I felt. What do you mean, “That game did something to me”?

At that moment, six years of conflict suddenly made sense. I finally realized: our son was trapped in his virtual world and couldn’t get out.

Problem

I should have noticed the warning signs in middle school when Adam started dropping out of sports and hobbies to play more video games. He also began choosing his gaming world over spending time with us or going to church. I hated my new job as the Game Cop Mom, setting the kitchen timer and dealing with constant conflicts over his game time.

Was it normal for a teen boy to be happily hunched over a screen in the dark basement for hours? My mom friends assured me, “At least he’s not out getting into trouble. At least you always know where he is.” I remember thinking this was setting a low bar. But he was my first child, and he seemed to be learning so much on that screen—at least, that’s what he told me.

His screen habits grew worse in ninth grade when his school, like many others, issued a laptop to all the students. That was a turning point for our family because we lost all ability to help him manage his screen time. As I walked down the school hall one day to meet the counselor to discuss the problem, I passed a row of boys, all playing Call of Duty on their school-issued laptops. I wondered how other parents were coping.

The remainder of Adam’s time in high school was filled with conflict—the push and pull of trying to manage life with his unmanageable gaming obsession. We were happy to see him off to college; we supposed he would outgrow his juvenile habit and finally start his life. But we were wrong. On that drive home, I realized we were dealing with something more serious than a bad habit. This had all the signs of an addiction.

Research

My background is in nursing, so I took a deep dive into the brain research related to video game use. I talked to physicians and neuroscientists across the country and learned that gaming addiction includes a well-defined neurochemical component. MRIs show gaming addiction to be neurologically similar to every other addiction. Like gambling and using drugs, gaming hijacks the dopamine reward pathway. The overproduction of dopamine during gaming sets off a series of neurochemical events, leading to a craving for more. This, in turn, leads to impaired self-control and dysfunction in daily activities and interpersonal relationships—underlying factors in every addiction.

Adam wasn’t exaggerating: the game had “done something” to his brain.

I shifted from thinking in terms of parental limits—like setting a curfew or not allowing R-rated movies—to understanding the deeper emotional and spiritual implications of a child lost in the virtual world. Gaming wasn’t a neutral rite of passage. Instead, like all addictive activities, it could potentially sweep a child away from the foundation of his family and spiritual life. He becomes the god of his own universe in his daily escape. Over time, the virtual world can become so authentic and so immersive that the need for his family, for God, and for natural joy diminishes.

Redemption

Even when times were dark and I felt isolated in this struggle, I knew deep down there was a greater purpose. Second Corinthians 1:3–5 tells us God comforts us in all our troubles so we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we’ve received from God. I promised myself I’d never forget the pain of this time in my life so I could help other families prevent what happened to my oldest son.

Over time, the virtual world can become so authentic and so immersive that the need for his family, for God, and for natural joy diminishes.

Fortunately, our story is filled with redemption. First, nearly 12 years later, Adam is doing well—he served five years in the U.S. Army and graduated from college. Now finishing law school, he’s also a spokesperson for ScreenStrong, the nonprofit organization we started to save kids from the path he took. Adam tells them he wishes he could reclaim the more than 10,000 hours he spent gaming and losing himself in the virtual world.

Second, because of what Adam experienced, my husband and I changed how we addressed technology with his sister and his younger twin brothers, creating for them a childhood free from video games and smartphones.

Radical? Yes. But our daughter thrived during high school without a smartphone or social media. She was never pulled into the drama of middle school text wars or the temptations older teens faced on social media. The twins are flourishing in high school, investing in face-to-face relationships with many groups of friends, coaches, and teachers. Instead of playing Fortnite for four hours daily, they compete in baseball and cross country, serve on the student council, and enjoy playing violin and piano. All these are activities Adam missed out on because of the time he’d invested staring at a screen, holding a game controller.

I’m often asked if they feel left out. No, my teens have close connections to their friends and our family. This path has led to so much joy in our home.

Third, God has used Adam’s story to reach many families. I now spend my time helping other moms and dads who are struggling with screen-time problems in their homes. Education about the effects of screens on brains becomes the light that shines in the dark places. Parents are able to understand the effects of screen overuse on the developing child and make the best decisions for their family. And through community, parents no longer feel isolation and shame. The result? Relationships are being restored.

Moving Forward

There’s no shame in making mistakes; we certainly made many. As parents, we struggle to live in the tension between God’s sovereignty over every square inch of creation (to quote Abraham Kuyper) and our responsibility to be faithful stewards of our lives and guardians of our children.

How can we do this well? The addictive and provocative elements of video games are so powerful that I think it’s dangerous to allow them into our homes as a valued activity during childhood and then expect our children to thrive. Setting our children up for failure isn’t protecting them; it’s not wise, and it doesn’t honor our Creator.

Education about the effects of screens on brains becomes the light that shines in the dark places.

Our parental responsibility is to guard our children against addictive elements of culture that harm them. Ask yourself some questions: Is game use in your home increasing over time? Is game time displacing sports and healthy hobbies? Are your child’s grades and relationships suffering? Is his gaming distancing him from God and his family?

If you sense something’s wrong with your child’s relationship with screens, don’t ignore that persistent inner warning—as I did for so long.

Adam once told me, “Mom, you will never hurt my feelings if you share my story. Please warn as many families as you can.”

Every family is facing the tidal wave of digital technology in childhood, but not every family has to be swept away by it. We can’t inoculate our teens with parental controls or more conversations. We can’t change the child development process: they’re intelligent but not mature. We can’t force children to be “wise” with screen time, as they aren’t adults with a fully connected frontal cortex.

But we can be more informed and diligent as we align our kids’ activities with our values. We can proactively avoid screen struggles and focus on healthy relationships. The solution isn’t about taking away our kids’ fun but giving back their deeper joy in real-life engagement. God created a world for them to explore and adventures for them to have in real life. Let’s point them in his direction.

And let’s keep our own eyes focused there too. Remember that God is the One who gives us new mercies every morning (Lam. 3:22–23), wisdom when we ask (James 1:5), and endurance and encouragement we can share with others (Rom. 15:5).

Gaming addiction is real; don’t be afraid to search for help from parents who have come out on the other side of their screen struggles. There is hope. By the grace of God, You can reclaim your kids and reconnect your family.

Melanie Hempe

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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