Understanding Teenagers and Video Games – Part 1

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“I don’t know what to do about my teenager and his video games. It’s like he’s addicted to them.”

I hear this nearly once a day from worried parents. The truth is that the number of teens who play video games is staggering. One survey indicates 84% of teen boys between the ages of 13-17 play video games on their phones, computers, tablets and consoles (Xbox, PS4, etc).

This is the first of a series of posts about teens and video games.  In this post I want to help you understand the teen’s experience of the game. You must first understand the problem before you can solve it. Because I’ve heard the following statements from teens hundreds of times, I’m not breaking confidentiality.  In detailing these teens’ experience of gaming, I’m not justifying that they play games or even how much they play them, but trying to help you to understand why they are so drawn to playing video games.”

“It’s not about being away from family”

“My parents think I’m trying to avoid them and the family and they’ll even ask “What, you don’t like your family anymore?’ But it’s not about avoiding them, its about being with my friends.”

Its natural and normal for teens to distance themselves from their family.  With or without video games this distancing will look like reclusion, especially if your teen is more sociable while at home.  For many teens though, their intention, is not to distance from family but to connect with their friends who are hanging out online in the game.

“Gaming is fun. Period.”

“I mean I like ’em. I really like ’em. They’re fun. Who doesn’t want to have fun. School is not fun. League is fun.”

The teenage brain has competing needs for familiarity and novelty. Novelty, however, will trump familiarity any day in the teenage brain. Video games supply teens with both. While many adults think teens “are playing the same thing over and over”, in reality the “same” game changes every time they play it, especially when they’re playing virtually with their friends.  In addition, modern game design, takes the adolescent male brain into consideration when developing games, and has integrated new experiences, adventures, themes into the game itself which makes the game fun. 

“It gives me a way to not think about stuff.”

“It’s like I’m in a different world. I’m not stressed and I don’t have to think about stuff. I think about stuff all day and at night and on the weekends I’m tired and don’t wanna think anymore.”

We all have something (healthy or not) that helps us cope and “check out” from reality, even if only for a short time. For teens, gaming is a convenient and effective way to enter a different world and disengage from the many stressors they face.

“Video games are competitive, challenging and rewarding.”

“If feels awesome when you can level up. I try hard at a bunch of stuff I suck at, but when I level up I feel good.”

“Leveling up”, essentially, means to advance in the game based on your achievement. Most modern video games are designed around a progressive structure that allows you to get further in the game or give you rewards (items) that can help you to do better within the game.  As teens seek to discern their identity and strengths, gaming provides them with an opportunity to discover both. They may not feel significant at school, at home or in other activities, but when they play a game they’re really good at, they can feel like they are on top of the world. 

“Its not just me playing the game by myself.”

“My parents don’t understand that the game is where me and my friends hang out. I know they see me alone in my room, and they say ‘You’re all by yourself!’ but really? I’m not alone. I’m with my friends.”

Today’s games are highly social activities where teens connect with friends and play together, albeit virtually. For lots of teens, gaming is the place where they prefer to hang out and in some cases the only place they believe they can hangout.

“My friends are counting on me.”

“When they just unplug my game or tell me that day I can’t play, which I get Mr. P, but what you guys don’t understand is that it’s not just me who gets screwed, it’s my friends too!”

Because of the social nature of virtual gaming, many teens play games where they are on teams competing against others. Their teammates, their squad, depend on them to be there. Without them, their team is not able to compete as well. If a teen’s presence is too often threatened or inconsistent they’ll get harassed about it and potentially excluded. 

“I don’t have anything else to do.”

I’m bored…and gaming seems to be better than some other things I could be doing.”

Gaming fills a void in the lives of many teens. For a variety of reasons, some teens aren’t plugged into other face to face activities such as sports, clubs and other organizations both in and out of school. In gaming they find an enjoyable way to occupy their time. And because most gaming is not illegal or immoral, its very difficult for teens to understand why their parents think that unlimited gaming is bad for them. 

In the next post in this series I’ll offer practical tips for setting boundaries with teens and video games.

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