Gaming and the Impact on Our Kids

In this blog I want to focus on a personal and professional concern that has been with me for a few weeks now, the effects of gaming on our children and their emotional development.

I work with clients throughout the day who are noticing the same effects that even I am finding in my son, so I wanted to go through what the theory is behind the effects of gaming and provide you with some background information on how it can impact our minds and bodies.

I won’t be giving you any specific guidance on outcomes, there are no hard and fast rules for parents! You should be making decisions on how you want to manage your families however; the important part is the you understand the biological and mental impacts.

Let’s Talk Systems

Our bodies are managed by three very different emotional regulation systems, each connects with another and helps create our unique personalities. Let’s talk through them and how they may manifest in our kids when they are gaming.

Drive System

As the name suggests this is the emotional regulation system that drives us as human beings. It helps us achieve in life – it can be as basic as the drive to find food or have a relationship or it can be as advanced as succeeding in our workplace or winning a race.

When our drive system achieves, our body is rewarded with a big hit of the chemical dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical released in the brain that makes you feel good. Having the right amount of dopamine is important both for your body and your brain.

On the negative side, this pleasure drug is also released when we feel the excitement of addictive activities such as gambling. Game developers recognise this, and you will often find games are built around reward and achievement and can trigger massive dopamine hits to children which makes them highly addictive.

Threat System

Our threat system is the one that keeps us safe, essentially it induces the ‘flight, fright of freeze’ actions that trigger our body to deal with any threats we are facing. The chemicals associated with this are cortisol and adrenaline. These chemicals can get us agitated and excited.

Games might not be built to promote this, but I know that from my own experiences and from the work in our clinic that children face a lot of anxiety, stress and adrenaline when playing these games. The threat system is highly active during gaming systems, so as all these chemicals are buzzing around our children during gaming sessions the addiction continues.

Soothe System

This system is rarely discussed, and I believe is one we should focus on more often. It’s often referred to as our rest and reflect time, it’s when we are just ‘being’. It’s a time where we can be settled, content and okay. It’s the state where we want to be most of the time, being constantly in the other two systems are exhausting and can have longer term impacts.

I find that this system is underdeveloped in adults and kids these days.

The Soothing System is essential as it allows us to soothe ourselves and also to soothe others – It is linked with experiences of giving/receiving affection, eliciting and receiving care from others, acceptance, kindness, warmth, encouragement, support and affiliation. Research has shown that these behaviours can weaken the toxic effects of the Threat and Drive Systems and that the Soothing System can bring us a sense of calm, safeness, and peace.

Why should we focus on Soothing System Skills

In my household, my son used to love playing with his Lego, painting and drawing and generally playing with his toys. However, when gaming started and we didn’t impose rules and restrictions, his interest in these more slow-paced activities dried up. “Those are boring things,” he would say to me.

Do you blame him? Is the excitement and adrenaline of an online game comparable to playdough? Probably not, but how will this help him in the long run? His ability to self-soothe through calming activities such as art and crafts was dwindling.

It’s so vital that we focus on the skills and benefits from the Soothing System, however with so many kids spending a lot of time gaming – the drive and threat systems are going into overdrive and the ability to self sooth and manage “big emotions” is dwindling. In fact, we are promoting the experience and development of “big feelings”.

A lot of parents say that when children come off their gaming device they are agitated and snappy. It’s easy to see why, the chemicals are pumping through their body at high levels. People making games want this reaction as it makes the game addictive, enjoyable and make us purchase them.

As parents we shouldn’t be afraid to set rules in terms of gaming so we can help our children develop skills that will benefit in the long run.

What are the warning signs you should be aware of?

Of course, every child is unique, and some will have the ability to regulate their emotions and take time out, but there are some key signs and symptoms that every parent should be aware of.

Key warning signs:

  • Mood changes – Extreme mood swings from extremely happy to angry
  • Addiction – Refuses to stop playing or gets upset when gaming time is over
  • Aggression – Aggressive behaviour during game play or after gaming
  • Deceiving – Sneaky behaviour such as getting up early to play or hiding gaming activity

If any of these behaviours are something you are worried about, the team at Spencer Health is here to support you. It’s important to reach out early so we can help you and your family put strategies together to curb the impact of gaming.