Are video game addiction rehabs just an excuse for bad parenting?

Kids are addicted to video games and parents are to blame. This has been the public consensus to viral stories of parents struggling to regain control over their kids’ gaming.

But is it true? Is video game addiction a parenting problem? Are video game rehabs just an excuse for bad parenting? No. Addiction is far more complex than that.

It’s Not Bad Parenting

Recently Bloomberg reported the story of Debbie Vitany, a caring mother who is losing her 17-year-old son, Carson, to Fortnite — the current hottest (and most addictive) game in the world. I know this story well, as I struggled with my own addiction to video games for 10 years. My addiction brought me to the verge of suicide.

Since sharing my story of recovery seven years ago I have heard from thousands of people asking for help. And they aren’t only parents. 60% are adult gamers, unable to stop, and struggling to complete college or gain employment 1 1. King & Adair (2018). Clinical predictors of gaming abstinence in help-seeking adult problematic gamers. Psychiatry Research. × .

But can’t parents just take the games away? Turn off the wifi? Smash the Xbox? Sure, in some cases, but in others, this advice could be outright dangerous. Al Spencer is a caring mother who pulled the plug on her gaming addicted 17-year-old, and he responded by taking a fatal overdose. Thankfully after four days in the ICU, he pulled through.

Parents Are Struggling

While on tour in Australia last year I heard the heartbreaking story of my Uber driver. His 27-year-old son physically attacked him after he removed wifi access, causing him to fear for his life. So why doesn’t he just kick him out of the house? Because he figures his son will end up in jail. When it’s not your son it’s easy to say what you would do in that situation.

Michelle’s son refuses to go to school ‘due to headaches’ if he does not have unlimited gaming time. Of course when he has access he also refuses to go to school because he’s gaming all day. It’s illegal to not go to school in California where they reside, and her son has already had his first court date, leaving this family with the terrible choice of either allowing him to go down the path of the judicial system, or taking a second mortgage out on their home to send him to therapeutic boarding school.

Video game addiction is not a parenting problem. It is a mental health condition and public health issue. The World Health Organization has confirmed as much by adding ‘Gaming Disorder’ to the upcoming ICD-11, due out this year.

When Britta Hodge courageously shared the story of her son Logan’s gaming addiction on 60 Minutes, she was met with intense backlash, and a petition was started to physically remove Logan from her care. Meanwhile, over 500 parents joined her Online Gaming Addiction Facebook group to ask for help. The overwhelming sentiment by new members was how relieved they were to discover they were not alone.

Stop Blaming Parents

Blaming and shaming are not helpful. They are harmful. Stigma—the fear of being judged, dismissed, or misunderstood—is the largest barrier to people seeking help for their mental health. We should be encouraging parents who are struggling with addiction challenges to find professional support, not judging their parenting styles from the comforts of our peaceful home.

Kids are becoming addicted to video games because video games are specifically designed to be addictive, not because parents allow them to play too much. Where is the call for gaming companies to be held accountable for their role in creating this crisis?

Recent innovations such as loot boxes, a type of ‘mystery box’ where a player spends real-world money for the chance to win virtual goods – which research finds is psychologically similar to gambling – has caused governments in Belgium and the Netherlands to take action, and the FTC has vowed to launch an investigation of their own.

Learning to parent in this digital age is crucial, and we need to provide better tools and resources to support parents in this process. Books such as Jordan Shapiro’s The New Childhood, Reset Your Child’s Brain by Victoria Dunkley, and Anya Kamenetz’s The Art of Screen Time, are steps in the right direction.

We need more public awareness campaigns, better training and screening tools for professionals, and for extreme cases — digital detox camps, summer activities and rehab centers. But attacking parents who are brave enough to come forward must stop.

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