Updated: Jun 28
Helping Your Child Have a Healthy Relationship With Video Games – Yes It Is Possible!
Most parents are used to seeing glowing screens as they walk by their kids’s room. Whether it’s checking Facebook in the morning or playing Call of Duty late into the night, our children’s brains are being constantly stimulated by these devices.
Intense action games tap into the fight or flight response in teen’s brains (and adult brains). The overload of stimuli causes fight-or-flight brainwaves to increase, which initiates adrenaline and increases hyper-arousal. This can leave your teen’s logical, impulse controlling pre-frontal cortex completely depleted. This means the part of their brain that controls their emotions and behavior is not fully functioning any longer. This can lead to a shortened attention span, impulsiveness, as well as increased frustration and agitation.
As parents, we remember what it’s like to have an overstimulated, mentally exhausted toddler. Meltdowns and tantrums galore. But we can sometimes forget that the same thing affects older kids too.
Have you ever noticed your teen’s behavior after a particularly long gaming session? Chances are they act groggy, agitated, short tempered and have little control of their reactions.
As far back as the early 1990s, scientists warned that because video games only stimulate brain regions that control vision and movement. This means prolonged gaming can leave the other parts of the brain responsible for behavior, emotion, creativity and learning in a state of atrophy (reduced function) if not balanced with many other types of activities.
A study published in the scientific journal Nature showed that playing video games releases the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. The amount of dopamine released while playing video games was similar to what is seen after intravenous injection of the stimulant drugs amphetamine or methylphenidate.
Yet despite mounting evidence about the cognitive, behavioral, and neurochemical impact of gaming, the concept of game addiction is difficult to define. Still, experts agree gaming has addictive qualities. The human brain is wired to crave instant gratification, fast pace, and unpredictability. All three of these are intentionally programmed into video games.
"Playing video games floods the pleasure center of the brain with dopamine," says David Greenfield, Ph.D., founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. That gives gamers a rush of pleasure — but only temporarily while gaming. Due to all the extra dopamine produced while gaming, the brain compensates by producing less of this critical neurotransmitter when not gaming. This results in a diminished supply of dopamine, which can impair attention, behavior, emotional stability, impulse control, and even reduces pleasure and happiness from everyday life.
Video games are intentionally designed with the same reward structure as a slot machine. The tension of knowing you might score (or shoot a target), but not knowing exactly when, keeps you in the game. The player develops an unshakeable faith, after a while, that "this will be the time I hit it big."
How Video Games Can HELP The Brain
Studies show playing action video games enhances visual capabilities, such as tracking multiple objects, spatial skills (ability to mentally rotate objects), and storing and manipulating them in the memory centers of the brain. Such games require players to think of an overall strategy, perform several tasks simultaneously, and make decisions that have both an immediate and long-term impact. These are all good cognitive skills as long as they are in balance with other parts of the brain.
How Video Games Can HURT The Brain
Excessive gaming can diminish the supply of dopamine (when not gaming), which affects attention, behavior, emotional stability, impulse control, and even reduces pleasure and happiness from everyday life.
The stakes may be higher for a child (or adult) with anger and behavior issues who finds solace in violent video games. While experts disagree about what impact violent games have on actual violent behavior, some research shows a link between playing violent games and aggressive thoughts and behavior.
For a kid who already has an aggressive personality, that could be a problem, since video games reward those aggressive tendencies. In fact, two separate studies found that playing a violent video game for just 10–20 minutes increased aggressive thoughts compared to those who played nonviolent games.
Warning Signs Your Child May Have a Gaming Addiction?
The following warning signs may indicate a problem:
Spending excessive amounts of time on the computer.
Becoming defensive when confronted about gaming.
Losing track of time.
Preferring to spend more time with the computer than with friends or family.
Losing interest in previously important activities or hobbies.
Becoming socially isolated, moody, or irritable.
Establishing a new life with online friends.
Neglecting schoolwork and struggling to achieve acceptable grades.
Spending money on unexplained activities.
Attempting to hide gaming activities.
How To Help Your Child Navigate Gaming
The key to ensuring your children have a healthy relationship with video games (and, yes, there is such a thing) means ensuring they balance using all functions of their brain equally by finding pleasurable experiences outside of gaming.
Pay attention: According to David Greenfield, Ph.D., founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, 80 percent of the time a child spends on the computer has nothing to do with academics. Putting computers, smartphones, and other gaming devices in a central location—and not behind closed doors—allows you to monitor their activities. Learn how to check the computer's search history to confirm what your children have been doing on the Internet.
Establish boundaries: Set—and enforce—limits on screen time. "Kids are often unable to accurately judge the amount of time they spend gaming. Further, they are unconsciously reinforced to stay in the game," says Dr. Greenfield, who recommends no more than one or two hours of screen time on weekdays. Taking advantage of firewalls, electronic limits, and blocks on cell phones and Internet sites can help.
Know your kid: If your child is doing well in the real world, participating in school, sports, and social activities, then limiting game play may not be as important. The key, say experts, is maintaining a presence in their lives and being aware of their interests and activities. On the other hand, if you have a kid who already has anger issues, you might want to limit violent games, suggests Tom A. Hummer, Ph.D., assistant research professor in the department of psychiatry at Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis.
When You Need Additional Help
An EEG brain map is a simple, non-invasive, pain-free way to objectively measure regions of the brain that are stuck in high-alert (over-activation). At rest your brain’s electrical activity should shift down to a resting state (like when your car engine idles when you come to a stop). This is also similar to how your heart rate is reduced to a normal resting state when you are at rest. If a region of your brain stays in a fully active state when you are at rest, that region has been conditioned to stay on high-alert and has lost its ability to down regulate. This can happen when soldiers are exposed to a high threat environment for a prolonged period of time and it can also happen when people engage in video games for a prolonged period of time. The brain loses its ability to shift and adapt and ends up stuck in a hyper-vigilant, over-active state. When a brain region is conditioned to stay in a high-alert state, it can significantly impair behavior, emotions, impulsivity, and learning.
When your child is able to objectively see their own brain activity and understand that their brain has changed due to prolonged gaming, they are typically more open to making some modifications that will help reset their brain activity.
If mom and dad say gaming hurts the brain, your kid typically does not care. However, when a neuroscientist shows your child a picture of their brain activity and helps them understand what is happening, children generally respond better.
At the Brain Performance Center we use EEG brain mapping to objectively measure brainwave function. An EEG brain map can identify regions of the brain stuck in high-alert. Once we know what physiology is causing the functional issue, we can personalize nutritional, behavioral and neurofeedback interventions to return the brain activity to a normal state.
Neurofeedback brain training is a non-invasive, highly effective, non-pharmaceutical way to reset the brain activity at the root of many behavioral and emotional symptoms. It is a powerful form of biofeedback, using EEG sensors on your scalp connected to sophisticated audio/visual feedback exercises. Your brain actually controls the exercises on a video screen. Neurofeedback can accurately target a specific brain region and retrain brainwave dysfunction back to its normal state. It’s like physical therapy for the brain.
Contact the Brain Performance Center for more information about EEG brain mapping and Neurofeedback brain training. Training can be done at one of our three centers in Southern California or in your home with our state-of-the-art remote neurofeedback equipment rental program. For more information, please visit us at www.BrainPerformance.com. Email us at Info@BrainPerformance.com or call us at 800-385-0710.