What to do when your child is addicted to video games

We were on the road, taking our oldest son back from his first year of college, when the moment of clarity came.

"Mom, I've been in bed for the last week," Adam said. "I didn't leave my bedroom. I didn't finish my classes. That video game did something to me."

I will never forget the shock I felt. What do you mean "that game did something to me"?

At that moment, six years of conflict suddenly made sense. It finally dawned on me: our son was trapped in his virtual world and couldn't get out.


I should have noticed the warning signs in high school, when Adam started giving up sports and hobbies to play more video games. He also began to prefer his game world to spending time with us or going to church. I hated my new job as a video game police mom, setting the kitchen timer and dealing with constant conflicts over playtime from him.

Was it normal for a teenager to spend hours and hours happily hunched over a screen in the dark basement? My friends would tell me, “At least she doesn't get in trouble. At least you always know where he is ». I remember thinking that was a very low standard. But he was my first child, and he seemed to be learning a lot on that screen; at least, that's what he told me.

If you sense something is wrong with your child's relationship with screens, don't ignore that nagging inner warning.

His screen habits worsened in ninth grade, when his school, like many others, gave every student a laptop. That was a turning point for our family, because we lost all ability to help him control his screen time. One day, as I was walking down the hall at school to meet with the counselor and discuss the problem, I passed a line of boys playing card games. call of duty on their gifted laptops. I wondered how other parents were coping.

The rest of Adam's time in high school was fraught with conflict: the tug-of-war of trying to manage life with his unmanageable obsession with gaming. We're glad he went to college; we assumed that he would outgrow his youthful habit and his life would finally begin. But we were wrong. On the ride home, I realized we were dealing with something more serious than just a bad habit. He had all the symptoms of an addiction.


My background is in nursing, so I dove deep into brain research related to video game use. I've talked to doctors and neuroscientists across the country and learned that video game addiction includes a well-defined neurochemical component. MRIs show that video game addiction is neurologically similar to any other addiction. Like gambling and drugs, gambling hijacks the dopamine reward pathway. The overproduction of dopamine during gaming triggers a series of neurochemical events that lead to a craving for more. This, in turn, causes a deterioration of self-control and dysfunctions in daily activities and interpersonal relationships, determining factors of any addiction.

Adam wasn't exaggerating: the game had "done something" to his brain.

I went from thinking in terms of parental boundaries—like setting a curfew or not allowing R-rated movies—to understanding the deeper emotional and spiritual implications of a child lost in the virtual world. The game was not a neutral rite of passage. On the contrary, like all addictive activities, it could potentially drag a child away from the foundations of her family and spiritual life. He becomes the god of his own universe in his daily escape. Over time, the virtual world can become so authentic and immersive that your need for your family, for God, and for natural joy diminishes.


Even when times were dark and I felt isolated in this fight, I knew that deep down there was a greater purpose. 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 tells us that God comforts us in all our tribulations so that we can comfort those in any tribulation with the comfort we have received from God. I promised myself that I would never forget the pain of this time in my life so that I could help other families avoid what happened to my eldest son.

Thank God, our history is full of redemption. First, almost twelve years later, Adam is doing well: he served five years in the US Army and graduated with a bachelor's degree. He is now finishing his law degree and is a spokesperson for ScreenStrong, a non-profit organization we created to save children from the path he took. Adam tells them that he wishes he could make up for the 10,000+ hours he spent playing games and getting lost in the virtual world.

Second, in the wake of what Adam went through, my husband and I changed the way we approach technology with his younger sister and twin brothers, creating for them a childhood free of video games and smart phones.

Radical? Yes. But our daughter did just fine in high school without smartphones or social media. She was never drawn into the drama of high school text wars or the temptations of older teens on social media. The twins are thriving through high school, maintaining face-to-face relationships with many groups of friends, coaches, and teachers. Instead of playing Fortnite for four hours a day, they compete in baseball and cross country, serve on student council, and enjoy playing the violin and piano. These are all activities that Adam lost because of the time he spent looking at a screen with the game controller in hand.

They often ask me if they feel left out. No, my children are very close to their friends and to our family. This path has given rise to much joy in our home.

Third, God has used Adam's story to reach many families. I now spend my time helping other moms and dads who are struggling with screen time issues in their homes. Education about the effects of screens on the brain becomes the light that shines in dark places. Parents can understand the effects of excessive screen use on child development and make the best decisions for their family. Through the community, parents stop feeling isolated and ashamed. What's the score? Relations are restored.

Let's go ahead

There is no shame in making mistakes; we made many. As parents, we struggle to live in the tension between God's sovereignty over every square inch of creation (quoting Abraham Kuyper) and our responsibility to be faithful stewards of our lives and guardians of our children.

How can we do this right? The addictive and provocative elements of video games are so powerful that I believe it is dangerous to allow them into our homes as a valued activity during childhood and then expect our children to thrive. Setting our children up for failure is not protecting them, it is not wise, and it does not honor our Creator.

The solution is not to deprive our children of fun, but to give them back the deep joy of real life.

Our responsibility as parents is to protect our children from the addictive elements of culture that harm them. Ask yourself a few questions: Is the use of games in your home increasing over time? Is gaming time displacing healthy sports and hobbies? Are your child's grades and relationships getting worse? Is your gambling distancing you from God and your family?

If you sense something is wrong with your child's relationship with screens, don't ignore that nagging inner warning, like I did for a long time.

Adam once told me, “Mom, you will never hurt my feelings if you share my story. Please warn as many families as you can."

All families face the tidal wave of digital technology in childhood, but not all have to be swept away by it. We cannot immunize our teenagers with parental controls or more conversations. We cannot change the child development process: they are intelligent but not mature. We can't force kids to be "wise" with screen time, since they aren't adults with a fully connected frontal cortex.

But we can be more informed and diligent in aligning our children's activities with our values. We can proactively avoid screen fights and focus on healthy relationships. The solution is not to deprive our children of fun, but to restore joy deep in engagement with real life. God created a world for you to explore and adventures for you to experience in real life. Let's aim in his direction.

Let us also keep our gaze there. Let us remember that God is the one who gives us new mercies every morning (Lm 3:22-23), wisdom when we ask for it (Stg. 1:5) and resistance and encouragement that we can share with others (Ro 15:5).

Video game addiction is real; don't be afraid to seek help from parents who have come out on the other side of their struggles against screens. There is hope. By the grace of God, you can get your children back and reconnect your family.

Originally posted on The Gospel Coalition. Translated by Eduardo Fergusson.

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