The squeals and hollering under the Christmas tree in 1988 were epic at my house. As my brothers unwrapped the big box they’d been eyeing for days, their 9- and 10-year-old voices shook the ornaments as they jumped up and down with excitement. Santa had delivered their dream gift: a Nintendo gaming system. An upgrade from their outdated Atari, they practically levitated as my father helped them set up their new system on our television in the family room. As my 13-year-old self watched them slip into a video game coma, matching bedheads and footie-pajama-clad, I remember thinking, “I don’t get it. What’s the big deal with video games?”
And while I eventually participated in marathon Super Mario Bros. games with my brothers, I never fully understood why video games were so engrossing. I had no desire to sit in front of a TV, pounding on a hand controller, while trying to save the world from space aliens or rescuing the Princess Zelda. Frankly, I found spending time at the mall much more appealing, and I never jumped on the video game bandwagon.
Of course, though, the universe has a sense of humor and sent me a son who is completely and utterly obsessed with video games, much like his uncles were at his age.
Our first experience with video games came just before the Wii hit the market. My mother-in-law gave our then 3-year-old son a gaming system designed for toddlers: larger controllers, games centered around letters and numbers, and an easy to use on and off switch. When he opened his birthday present that year, his eyes lit up and he was instantly enamored with the colorful graphics on the screen. For a few days, it was cute to see him so excited about learning his letters and playing the simple games in the family room.
But then the tantrums started. And the crabby behavior. And the inability to focus on anything but when he’d get to play his video games next. He talked nonstop about his new gaming system, and often, he’d stay up late into the night, eagerly awaiting his next chance to play his letter games. We started to notice that he was rising earlier and earlier, all in hopes of getting to sit in front of the TV and zone out with this newfound obsession. When I’d tell him it was time to turn his games off, he’d throw epic tantrums, crying, kicking, and screaming, and it would be hours before he could get his emotions under control.
Video games became an exhausting activity in our home, and it took my husband and me completely by surprise. I didn’t remember my brothers having complete and total meltdowns over video games, and I felt unprepared to have to put restrictions on a seemingly benign learning activity for my son. But as the weeks wore on and his emotional outbursts became more intense and harder to quell, my husband and I knew we had to cut ties with video games, at least until our son matured a bit.
So, for several years, we had a no video game policy in our house. And that worked for a while. But, the thing is, little boys, in particular, bond over video games. It’s the language that 8-year-olds use at school, and it can be difficult for boys when they aren’t in the video game loop. My son would go to his friends’ houses and come home excitedly talking about the fun he’d had playing a new game. And, because he was a bit older and it seemed that he was handling screen time with little difficulty, my husband and I relented and Santa brought a Wii gaming system the year our son turned 8.
It didn’t take long for his old behaviors to resurface though. Emotional outbursts when his allotted time was over, an inability to focus on his schoolwork, and difficulty sleeping became his norm. My husband and I set limits: He was only allowed to play video games for an hour on each weekend day and no gaming during the week. But doing so only confounded the problem. Our limits caused him to obsess more about when he’d get to play, and we watched as he spiraled out of control, unable to separate his mind from his video game obsession.
It was heartbreaking to watch.
I hated to have to be the bad guy and take away something he clearly enjoyed doing, but video games were affecting his mental health. At the tender age of 8, we were watching him deal with highs and lows, obsessive behaviors, and tantrums that all could be controlled by simply telling him that video games were no longer an option in our home. As soon as video games were out of the equation, he almost visibly relaxed. A few weeks after we put the kibosh on gaming, our son admitted that his mind felt “scrambled” when he played video games. When he looked at me and sheepishly told me he was glad he was getting a break from gaming, I knew we’d made the right choice. For almost five years, our home was video game free because it was the right decision for our family.
Our son is 13 now, and over the years, we’ve worked together to find the right balance for him. My husband and I realize that video games are part of the teenage experience, and because we’ve had so many discussions with our son about his feelings when he plays, he’s now able to identify the signs of when he’s had enough. We’ve helped him learn self-control, and while we’ve allowed him play video games occasionally, he realizes that his life doesn’t, and shouldn’t, revolve around screen time. He knows that, for him, having a normal relationship with video games means walking away and setting limits for himself.
Now, if I could just get him to obsess over cleaning his room and doing his laundry, we’d be in good shape.