My Kids' Video Game Overuse Got Me Through The Pandemic

I Worked With Video Game Addicts — When To Worry (And When To Relax) About Screen Time

June 2, 2021 Updated June 4, 2021

Five year old boy on digital tablet at night
Scary Mommy and Peter Dazeley/Getty

There is no denying that the Internet has provided amazing things for connecting people around the world during the pandemic, but there has been a dark side that we may be only seeing the tip of the iceberg of.

Having worked at The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction for years, I know better than most the devastating effects screens can have on young, still-forming brains. But during the pandemic, despite having access to hordes of research explaining the harms of video game and Internet addictions, I have allowed my preteen sons to game their brains out.

The mostly young male patients who come through our door are the ones who are gaming up to sixteen hours a day, have flunked out of school, and can’t hold down a job. Their relationships with family and friends are radically impacted, and oftentimes, their addictions have caused major financial repercussions to themselves and their families.

And what I have seen, beyond all the clinical symptoms of addiction, is deep sadness and crestfallen body language, a downturned head, and an energy of hopelessness.

For those who say Internet Addiction isn’t a real addiction, the brain doesn’t know the difference between whether you’re getting high on drugs or video games. Our feel-good chemical dopamine is released in our bodies and it feels great—gaming, social media use, and surfing the web create a self-reinforcing cycle that keeps making our kids want more of that rush.

As a single mom of three though, working, going to grad school, working an internship, and trying to have a personal life, can you blame me for ignoring the evidence of long-term effects? Or any of the other thousands of parents who have felt forced to do the same?

As parents facing kids at home practically 24/7, how were we supposed to work at the same time as they tugged on our pajamas for the fiftieth time that they needed a snack or were bored? I let them eat gummy snacks (not good for their teeth) and have screen time while I pushed out the visions of addicted individuals unable to leave their bedrooms, their moms delivering dinner to them at their computers because it is the only way to get them to eat, and plastic soda bottles of urine lined up under the desk because they could not break to use the bathroom.

Bur screen time was impossible to dismiss during quarantine. Not only were kids doing their schoolwork virtually, but their socializing consisted of FaceTiming their friends to play video games, talking through their headphones to them as they played, or gorging themselves watching other kids play video games on YouTube (I still don’t get this one).

Even the experts saidYes! Be flexible. Give your kids more screen time to survive as a parent unscathed.

We were given permission and even encouraged to hand over a digital drug to our kids. We fed their cravings.

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Don’t get me wrong—Internet use for our kids does not have to be bad. Luckily, most of our kids will never get to the point of addiction, but they may slide into just a bit too much use, which simply means we should be sure they have a healthy balance of other activities in their lives. If your child isn’t having any negative signs of too much Internet, like super crankiness when having to put a screen down, not doing well in school, or withdrawing from friends and other activities, they probably just need to become conscious of their use.

My kids became even more sedentary and inside than usual during quarantine, and I found myself having to bargain with my boys to go outside and play by giving them yet more Internet time for time spent outside, which was fine, and I don’t feel guilty about that.

The question now is—how do we rein our kids’ use back in as we get back to regular life?

And what even is regular life now? Or regular use of the Internet?

Our modern lives as parents, employees, kids, and students, depend on screens for everything from communication to work—especially during the pandemic, we couldn’t live without them.

Now, what our kids can see and play on their computer screens, tablets, or Smartphones is more exciting than riding a bicycle or building a stick fort, but they are missing out on that magical creativity driver—boredom!

A chance for self-reflection and contemplation. When I was young, I would stare out the window for hours, which helped me form ideas, draw, write, and create. Kids today are not sitting with their boredom—they are vanishing into their screens and leaving boredom (and creativity) behind.

As we realize en masse that we may have been supplying a little too much of this potentially addictive substance to our kids, our toddlers, heck—even our babies, we just need to reevaluate the place we want screens to have in our lives.

I know I am still spending much needed minutes of my day breaking up arguments over whose turn it is on the computer, urging my kids to play outside, and dealing with temper tantrums when I say No more.

They insist, “Just one more quick thing,” or, “The video is only 5 more minutes.” I glance over to my youngest son’s face as he pushes away from the computer desk, and I see a sadness, a slump in his frail shoulders, and a lost look on his face as he glances around our family room filled with arts and crafts supplies, books, and board games. “I don’t know what to do.”

My throat tightens as I see his twitchiness and I imagine him unable to stop in a few years, pasty-skinned, and peeing in a bottle. His lack of control over his emotions and inability to want to do anything else than electronics does have me concerned, whereas his brother is more willing to put his phone down and read or go outside by himself and find something to do.

I remind myself that I need to set boundaries for my kids now before they get older, and the problem gets bigger, and they might need a total digital detox.

We talked the other day and I reminded them that their brains have been  hijacked, but that we can get them back. So, I implemented what works right now for our entire family’s functioning and well-being: we have instilled a maximum of 2 hours of fun screen time per day, one movement activity a day, like short dance parties, neighborhood walks, or playing on a foam balance beam, and required outdoor time (for now, I actually have to time it).

I am encouraging any sign of nondigital interests: older sister loves Harry Potter? She is reading it to her brothers. Middle kid loves to read? I’ve extended his before-bed reading to as much as he wants and loaned him my booklight, so he can read under his blanket. Youngest loves comics? He is at least considering creating one.

The changes have been small, and we are still working to find the right balance: the boys playing Legos together, my daughter drawing and singing, and even a few times of hearing one boy say to the other, “Hey, let’s go outside to play,” like no kid has ever thought of this before.

I know mindful Internet use is possible for our kids, and for us, by turning off our own screens as much as possible and stepping back into more living IRL with them. And I also know, it’s OK to grant extra screen time as needed when it will help preserve my own sanity and ability to show up in the world for them.