Cyber Junkies: Solutions

My experience has taught me that cyber junkies pursue online “rewards” that they lack in their lives: opportunities for achievement and challenge, social connection, discovery, exploration, stimulation, and excitement.  It is not inherently bad to get these needs met in the cyber world, but some individuals become too dependent.

The trick in empowering these usually imaginative and highly intelligent people is to brainstorm creative ways for them to meet these needs in the real world.  Discovery-oriented Matt had a father determined to help him break his addiction to video games.  The 12 year old did like to ride his bike, so his father found ways of turning that into discovery and adventure.  Every weekend in the summer, the two journeyed with their bikes to a different and unusual venue.  They took the ferry to a biker-friendly island in Lake Erie.  They mapped out an urban route in the city of Toronto, taking in sites and sounds along the way.  They combined kayaking and biking along a local river.  Matt’s father took pains to make sure their biking routes included interesting and unusual attractions.  He linked screen time with these activities as well, providing potent motivational potential.

Fifteen-year-old David obsessed on real-time strategy video games, racking up 20+ hours per week, although he maintained his weekly total was much lower.  Yes, cyber junkies engage in deception and denial.  Sometimes, they even lie to themselves.  David’s father’s remedy was to play paintball with him once a week.  They even played indoors in the winter.  Just like Matt’s father had insisted, no screen time was allowed unless they had gone to paint ball together that week.  Eventually, they augmented this with other activities like rock climbing, snow boarding, and shooting at a local gun range.  David’s interest in games actually decreased significantly after a few months.

Tucker, on the other hand, never seems to lose an ounce of interest in games.  They were his entire life.  Ultima OnlineWorld of Warcraft, Wii, XBox, N64…he likes them all.  He is a true addict.  At the age of 23, after having been homeless and lost several jobs, his uncle agreed to take him in.  He was able to live there only under strict conditions:  He had to wake up by nine in the morning and begin two hours of chores; He had to demonstrate that he had put in at least an hour a day looking for work; He was allowed no video games and was given just 15 minutes a day to check his email and Facebook.  His uncle, obviously something of a control freak, also installed elaborate computer controls.  He has not found a job yet, but has adhered to the system for now.  If you don’t deal with cyber junkies when they’re young, they could very well end up like Tucker.

Responsible, consistent and creative parenting, however, take you a long way toward NOT having a Tucker in the family.  Most parents struggle with ideas for activities.  So, set up a brainstorming session with friends and family.  Ask around.  Post what you’re trying to do on Facebook.  Talk to librarians, school counselors, psychologists, social workers, and psychiatrists.  Get creative to create balance.

Fighting the Wrong Battle

There are no convincing scientific correlations between violent behavior and violent video game play.  Yet, parent groups across the nation continue to vigorously fight this battle.  They lobby lawmakers, hold rallies, and press for strict limitations on violent games.  They have had some recent success.

The state of California passed a law making it illegal to sell violent video games to anyone under 18.  The U.S. Supreme Court will hear this case later this year.  The lobbying arm of the video game industry, the Entertainment Software Association, spends millions a year fighting these regulatory efforts.  Parents want to protect their kids, and video game companies want to protect their profits.  But, is either of these really in jeopardy?

In the first place, video games cost a lot of money.  I don’t know too many 12-year olds who have $50 and transportation to the mall to buy games.  While I cannot fault parents for wanting to protect their kids, I think these laws are a lot of effort focused in a direction that will provide little bang for the concerned-parent’s buck.  Further, there are no studies that suggest such bans will decrease the playing of violent video games.  Banning the sale of these games to minors may actually increase play time!

But the most pressing issue is obscured:  video game play comprises an ever-increasing slice of recreational time for our kids.  Passing laws about who gets to purchase these games will do nothing to address excessive screen time, sedentary lifestyles, and screen-time-induced solitude and separation.

It is easy to have one’s attention drawn to sensational and outlandish stories.  But the reality is that the average American child spends close to five hours a day in front of a screen.  Excessive screen time correlates with obesity, attention issues, sleep troubles, poor performance in school, and social issues.  These are the real problems and they are only getting worse.

Rather than spend our time trying to restrict who gets to buy certain games, we should find a way to empower parents to restrict screen time in their homes.  The government could, for example, provide tax credits or funding so that even low income parents could access parental control devices. Parents need to be educated in how to help their children balance their lives and use the offerings of the cyber world to enhance their potential, not destroy it.

  • The next blog will focus on strategies for balancing real life and online realities.
  • Do you know anyone who suffers from Internet addiction?
  • Where do you stand in this debate?