Why pulling away from a video game is so darn hard

Tech Talk Tuesday #91: Why pulling away from a video game is so darn hard 

Does your kid freak out when screen time is up? Intense reactions to turning off video games are becoming too common. I just returned from The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s annual meeting where I showed Screenagers and was on a panel with other experts about the overuse of video games. I would love to share some tips from them about making video game play go smoother in our homes.
In Screenagers, Chris’s grandma talks about how he sometimes kicks the wall when his game time is up.  Where is this anger at stopping the game coming from? When someone plays a video game, the brain’s pleasure chemical, dopamine, is secreted into the reward center. For eons of human existence, this region was being lit up for things only related to human survival –such as human connection, sex, food and such. Today, young children are receiving the pleasure chemical when they get notifications from texts, email and video games.  

When the game is cut off, so is the dopamine. And when the brain realizes it will not be getting the pleasure chemical, emotions like anger and panic take over. Scientists call this “surge extinction.” We see this in the lab when a rat learns to push a lever and gets rewarded with a drug. If suddenly the drug stops flowing, the rat does not walk away calmly but instead starts pushing on the lever frantically. This behavior is very similar to when our kids’ freak out when the gaming console is turned off. 
So how do we make transitions off video games work better? Dialogue, limits and warnings. Bring your child into the decision about when to stop. If they have ownership in the stop times, they will be less likely to freak out. 

Every expert talks about the importance of having a timer set while kids are playing video games. Having a timer set means that not only have you and your child decided on an amount of time, it also defines the time and helps with transitions. Some recommend having a timer with two bells, one that goes off 10 minutes to stop time and one at the end. 
Another tip is to practice transitions with kids. Let's say your child often gets upset when the time is up. Consider working with him or her to find a game they find boring and then practice transitioning off it. If nothing else this might create some smiles talking about “stupid” games. Eventually, pick harder games to transition off and talk about how it could go better. 

One thing is to help the child become mindful of reality. For instance, maybe it is super hard for her to transition off a game that she is playing online with her friends because she doesn’t want to let her friends down. Maybe the key is to get her to realize that it is best not to play that game when she only gets thirty minutes on the computer that day.
Another thing to consider is that when we play these rewarding games, our brain’s pleasure chemical, dopamine, is filling up dopamine receptors. Our brain adapts by decreasing dopamine receptors. This means, over time, the brain will need more and more video games to get the same pleasurable feelings from the reward. For this reason, many experts recommend limiting video game use to shorter time intervals (such as 30 minutes at a time) to prevent this down-regulation of dopamine receptors.
Thank you to my co-panelists–Dr. Clifford Sussman, Dr. David Greenfield, Dr. Paul Weigle and Ed Spector–I highly recommend you check them out online.
Below are questions to help you talk to your kids about video games and transitions. Like always, I recommend starting the conversation on a positive note because we want kids to know that we understand why they love these games:

  1. What are your favorite video games these days?
  2. Which is the hardest to transition off and why?
  3. What tricks have worked to make transitioning off go smoother?
  4. A little exercise that could be fun is to have a child play a game they like, but not to look at a clock. Then, ask how long they were playing. You may well show them “time distortion” in action.
  5. Do you as a parent play video games with your kids? One survey showed that only 6% of parents ever play video games with their children and yet playing a video game together can be positive for the relationship.