Growing up, I simultaneously loved and hated the holidays. I loved the holidays because it gave me more time to play video games and I got games as holiday gifts. I hated the holidays because of family obligations (family meals, family outings, etc.) when all I wanted to do was game. I would be physically present at family meals, yet I was really mentally absent, busy planning my next gaming session. I was basically digitally divided from my family.
I’d like to share with you some useful tips to keep the digital divide to a minimum over the holidays and prevent a gaming disorder from developing or getting worse. Now I’m in a different phase of my life, coaching video game addicts to unplug and coaching friends and family of gaming addicts to support those with a gaming problem. This article is written mostly for the parents of underage children still living at home whom you have parental authority over. I’d strongly recommending also reading my other article on parenting and video games, The 5 uses of video games as parenting tools: How they work and how they backfire.
Priority 1: Protect sleep during the holidays. Sure it’s generous to let your kids stay up until 4am gaming with their friends because it’s “the holidays”. But be wary of creating a vicious downward spiral of binge gaming and isolation caused by late night gaming. When I played until the wee hours of the morning, I would sleep in, therefore miss breakfast, miss any morning family activities, and be a sleepy, antisocial grump for the rest of the day, only to stay up late again gaming and repeat the cycle. Once sleep gets out of whack, it’s difficult to recalibrate. Protecting sleep is the most important thing you can do to keep your children from disconnecting from the family during the holidays.
Install F.Lux on their gaming computer. This brilliant free program alters the level of blue light of the screen to mimic the current level of blue light emitted from the sun based on your time and your location. Blue light triggers the pineal gland that the sun is out. An unfiltered bright light emanating from a screen, especially at night, will throw off the circadian rhythm and harm sleep. Get the free app here: https://justgetflux.com/. At a minimum, you can turn the brightness of the screen down in most handhelds, phones, and computer screens, so the screens are not so bright at night.
Allow video games only after your kids have eaten meals, especially meals with the family. Make meal time mandatory, just like strict sleeping times. Meals, like sleep, are best done on a consistent schedule. A stable blood sugar will make for more stable moods which will make for a more pleasant family experience. The most important meal to enforce is a solid breakfast. A bad breakfast (including skipping breakfast) jeopardizes one’s health, mood, and attention span because a bad breakfast alters the blood sugar and throws off the hormone systems. If you want a better family holiday experience, plan for better breakfasts. To learn more about better breakfasts, download my free guide: “Ending Adrenal Fatigue: Easy Breakfast Guide”, available at www.drsamshay.com. Even if you don’t have adrenal fatigue, it’s an excellent guide to better breakfasts and includes a free breakfast shopping list.
Talk to your relatives ahead of time about the gaming rules so there is consistency in the house. Relatives have different standards than you do about your children, whether it’s food or video games. Some relatives are more strict around video games, some don’t think it’s a big deal at all. It’s like diet and nutrition: different family members have different opinions and some are more forceful about what they think should be allowed or not allowed for your children. Just like a relative who likes be the ‘fun one’ and give your kids with junk food, you may have an uncle or an aunt who wants to be known as the ‘fun one’ to your children, giving your kids video games you don’t allow. Worse, these ‘fun’ relatives may insist on playing the games for hours with your kids or guilt tripping you into letting you kids play their new games outside the rules you set. This situation can be difficult to handle because you’re the one most likely to get blamed for being a stick-in-the-mud by both your child and your relative. Best to avoid this situation altogether and alert your relatives that you require them to respect the rules around video games while visiting, including pre-clearing any video game gifts ahead of time.
Require a certain amount of exercise and outside time before and after gaming. Movement is required for optimal health and brain function. Sitting for hours is not healthy. Just do a search for “sitting is the new smoking” and you’ll find lots of research on the consequences of excessive sitting. Make movement and getting outside a pre- and post-requisite for playing video games. A great free app to gently remind someone to take a break from the screen is called “Time Out”, available for free at http://www.dejal.com/timeout/.
Place strict time limits on the times and length of gaming. Be specific on the duration of gaming you’ll allow (e.g. 2 hours, 3 hours, 4 hours, etc.), and the time frame you’ll allow it (e.g. between 10am-12pm, between 2-4pm, etc.). How much time is too much? I recommend reading my article The 3 definitive (and measurable) signs to play fewer video games. Time alone is not a good measure if someone is ‘addicted’ to video games, yet it’s a useful metric to gauge if someone is a ‘heavy’ gamer or a ‘binge’ gamer. Get clear on how much total time per day and per week you will allow and hold your ground.
Be flexible about gaming alone vs. gaming online with people vs. gaming with people in the same room. Create a tiered system of allowable gaming hours based on the level of social interaction. For example, for every hour you allow your child to game alone, instead let them play 1.5 hours with others online, or 2 hours with people in the same room gaming together. Basically, incentivize social gaming with extra time. Warning: sometimes social gaming can backfire. Read more about the consequences of social gaming in my ebook: “7 Ways to Game Less: How to unplug and live more”, available at www.DrSamShay.com/gaming-disorder-help.
Have real consequences: If they skip a meal, don’t exercise, play too long or too late, then remove gaming privileges and/or hardware. Take the smartphone, modem, console, controllers, keyboards, or power cords to the computer if necessary to enforce it. It’s easier to remove cords and controllers than it is to remove big hardware. My sister performed a “modemectomy” when I was a teenager because she was (rightly) concerned I had a video game addiction. Thought I got really upset, it was the right thing to do. You can read more about it in my guidebook, available at www.DrSamShay.com/gaming-disorder-help.
Let your children know the rules ahead of time and let them present their “game” plan to you. Yes, the pun is intended, yet the recommendation is sincere. Ask your children to plan out their gaming schedule and show it to you, accounting for meal times with family, family outings and activities, exercise, bedtimes, etc. Make sure your kids understand the consequences of violating the rules. If they don’t know the rules ahead of time and don’t plan ahead, you risk being on the wrong end of “gamer rage”, that phenomenon where you interrupt someone gaming and they get upset. If they know the rules (and consequences) ahead of time, and especially if they have written out their plan for you, there will be no excuses and no surprises. Also, they can plan their gaming so they won’t be interrupted during ‘important’ parts of the game, sparing you and them any gamer rage. Parting of growing up is learning how to make and keep agreements. Use the holidays as an opportunity for your children to maturely set and keep agreements around their own gaming schedule. Remember to enforce it though, because even the best kid can get carried away with a video game and lose track of time.
Conclusion: video games can create a digital divide between children and their family. The holidays punctuate this reality almost more than any other time. Yet, It is possible to have a holiday without dealing with tired, cranky, and bloodshot children who only grunt at visiting relatives (and you) while quickly eating something before rushing into another gaming session. By planning ahead, setting rules, and letting your children draw up a their “game” plan everyone will have a better family holiday.
About the author:
Dr. Shay overcame his 25+ year video game addiction. He now helps others overcome their video game addictions naturally, both in his clinic in New Zealand as a functional medicine practitioner, doctor of chiropractic, acupuncturist, and functional neurologist, as well as coaching worldwide via Skype. Learn more about his story in this video below:
Dr. Shay is also the author the ebook: “7 Ways to Game Less: How to Unplug and Live More”
Available at: www.DrSamShay.com/gaming-disorder-help.