Working with teens over the years has given me plenty of opportunity to talk about gaming and the Internet. It is not uncommon for parents to be concerned about how much time their child is spending on gaming and online. When I investigate, I find that teens are gaming and online at the expense of schoolwork, time with the family, or even eating and sleeping. Such preoccupations and addictions to gaming and the Internet can have serious health and well-being consequences, so parents are right to take notice and be concerned.
Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), a post-WWII neurologist and psychiatrist, wrote extensively about the role of meaning and purpose in promoting well-being. Based on my observations, it is conceivable that a sense of lack of meaning or purpose might be a source of gaming and Internet preoccupation. If this is the case it could also offer parents and teens a way to break out of such negative patterns.
Frankl practiced Logotherapy (a form of Existential Therapy) and lectured that meaning can be found through three paths: work, experience (e.g., art, nature, beauty, truth, love), and change of attitude (in cases when meaningless situations cannot be changed). See Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” for more. Indeed, some mental health conditions are the result of a sense of lack of meaning and purpose.
What is the attraction to Existentialism? I think many children have low expectations placed on them to be productive. This especially applies to many children I work with who have special needs. Because special needs children seem to require such great effort and expense to do “typical” activities like being successful in school, people sometimes assume they will require inordinate care or oversight to do other productive things. Without situations that allow children to be productive, they are drawn into a search for purpose and meaning.
Video games and the Internet provide meaning and purpose on a grand level. The interactional nature of online gaming and gaming “universes”, and other Internet-based social communities gives one a chance to create a life (i.e., persona) and become productive. Players and participants can then socialize, advance in rank and status, save the world from countless terrible scenarios, and have the whole process start all over again, with countless variations. Chat rooms allow an individual to try on personalities and identities, and get away with lies and exaggerations due to the intense anonymity of the medium. On the other hand, gaming and the Internet can provide a mind-numbing effect for those chronically “bored”, tired, or despondent children. For those who do not create, at least they can forget for a time. Gaming and the Internet can meet a number of real psychological and spiritual needs for children and teens.
When a child says, “I’m bored”, they could be announcing this very real and basic need to have purpose and meaning. This is an opportunity for parents to intervene to give them meaningful work, new and uplifting experience, or a different way to look at the situation.
What if your child is preoccupied with or simply addicted to gaming and the Internet? First and foremost, turn off the machine and remove your child’s unlimited access. For most children I meet who are preoccupied with gaming and the Internet, there is still time to “unplug” without major withdrawal symptoms. Second, children need constructive alternatives from Frankl’s three paths. Children can do helpful chores that benefit the family, have inspiring experiences at the tech or modern art museums, read a book, or go for a hike. In the beginning, they will need a parent’s help to guide them in this experience.
If parents are concerned about video game addiction for their children, they may need to help their child fill in the need that video games and the Internet are now filling. Lest you think you now have responsibility to give your child a sense of meaning, Frankl follows with, “Meaning cannot be given, it has to be discovered.” Parents can help facilitate the discovery process.