Her Kid's a Gaming Addict

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Dear Jack,

The other day I went to get my son up for school and found him playing on the computer. He hadn’t been to bed all night.

My son is an internet gaming addict. He’s a good kid, when he’s not immersed in his online roleplaying game. What friends he has left are also game addicts. If they’re not online at the same time, they’re over here, or he’s at their houses, watching each other play. If they’re not playing on the computer, they’re playing internet-linked video game console games. His grades are terrible.

I’ve talked to him and talked to him and it does no good. How can I get him to stop?

Fed Up

Dear Fed,

I have broken three addictions in my life. I have an addictive personality and I have made breaking my addictions something of a hobby. I pick a new one and quit every seven or eight years. The next one I plan to quit is my habit of getting married and divorced every five years or so.

I have known many people who have been addicts of one thing or another, and I know people who are still addicts. Each has his or her story of how they defeated their addictions. There’s no right way to stop. It all depends on the addict. The only way I am able to quit something is cold turkey. Many people can’t do it. My last wife quit smoking by using the patch and it worked for her. I just smoked while wearing the patch and doubled my nicotine intake.

Not knowing your son, I can’t tell you what will work. I can tell you what is true of all addictions – you can’t make him stop. He has to stop on his own, but you can help him by not setting him up for failure. The first thing you can do is take his computer out of his room. Move it to a common public area of the house so you can monitor his internet usage and nag the hell out of him when he’s playing too long. You can remove the internet access to his game console, either by taking the cable or blocking its wireless access.

That’s the easy part. He’s going to resent what you’ve done and hate you forever. He’ll go to his friends houses to play and feed his addiction. He’ll find ways to get around your blocks and checks — kids are like squirrels that way. You will have done nothing to stop him because you haven’t addresses his addiction at all. All you’ve done is punish him.

In order to adjust his behavior, you have to first create a shock moment of extreme emotion. That’s the taking-his-stuff part. Now, you must build ways to reward positive behavior rather than punishing bad behavior. When my kids were young, we used playing cards as a form of money. Each card was worth thirty minutes or an hour. If they did well, they got cards, which they could spend to buy television or game or movie time. They got cards, not just for good grades or cleaning their room, but also for things like going outside to play, reading a book, going to soccer and baseball practice and games. Anything that increased the time of their human social interactions or positive mental development. First we took away everything, and then we gave them the opportunity to earn the activities they craved. Before long, we no longer had to use the cards and video games weren’t their entire lives.

Your son is probably too old to use cards, but you can do the same thing on an honor system. Let him earn your trust and be rewarded for it. Let him lead a somewhat normal life and be rewarded for it. You’re not taking away his games forever, you’re giving him the opportunity to earn his game time. He’ll have to relearn how to live without it, because his access to it is strictly controlled. But at least he’s not quitting cold turkey. However, this will require a huge amount of discipline on your part. You are the one who has to quit cold turkey. You’re giving up the lazy parenting that allowed the situation to reach this point in the first place.

Got a problem? Jack Waggon will set you straight: jack.wagg@gmail.com

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