Many of the families I see at The Ann Arbor Center for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics have at least one child who occupies most of their time with a video game system. While many ‘tweens’ and adolescents enjoy video games, I see many children who have diagnoses of Asperger’s Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Delay-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) whose interest in this electronic media stretches beyond simple enjoyment. Especially during the junior high and teen years when children are feeling more socially isolated or have preexisting social skills difficulties that make interpersonal interactions uncomfortable; video games provide an escape.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines recommend that parents limit a child’s “screen time” (includes video games, computer, television) to one to two hours per day at most. An alternative that I often recommend to my families is to limit screen time to one hour on school nights and two to three hours a day on weekends and holidays. My intention is not to make the child’s life miserable (which they often accuse me of trying to do!) but rather to open up opportunities for relationships. Notice I recommend that parents limit, not eliminate video games. Video games are not interactive between people. Even if your child plays with a friend in the same room or online, this is not a spontaneous and reciprocal social interaction. Indeed, if you turned off the video game and asked the two kids in the room to get a conversation going for more than a few minutes, they would inevitably become uncomfortable and want to discuss or return to playing the video game.
In the world of autism spectrum, professionals like myself are always concerned about Comfort Zone activities. An autistic child’s Comfort Zone is his neuropsychological sense of comfort that occurs when he is doing what he wants and likes to do, especially when he is repeating activities. The comfort zone is based on the child’s atypical neurological system that makes the child want to keep the world the same. Thus, Comfort Zone activities for the young child may begin as lining up toys, progress to obsession with trains, and then morph into video game addiction during the teen years.
Although the strategies for how to wean a child from excessive video game usage vary from family to family, a few bits of advice may provide a good start:
- Make conversation a priority in you home.
- Read to your children.
- Don’t use video games as a reward or punishment.
- Encourage active recreation.
- Get the TV sets and video game systems out of your children’s bedrooms.
Children who excessively play video games tend to do so for a reason. Whether it is loneliness, social skills difficulties, feelings of isolation, anxiety, or depression; the use of video games becomes self-medicating and a means to quickly pass the time. The strategies mentioned above are only a drop in the bucket if your child is experiencing difficulties in any of the areas just mentioned. If you are fortunate enough to be reading this article while your child is still young, the best form of intervention is prevention. So start early and set those limits now while encouraging more appropriate use of your child’s time. Get them involved in fun activities out of the home to keep them interested and active. If your child is already hooked into the video games for an excessive amount of time, it may be worthwhile to seek a professional consultation to begin breaking the so-called video game “addiction.”