IStock_000014365039XSmallQ: My 17-year-old son started playing Call of Duty a few months ago. Since that time, he has had more trouble than usual falling asleep and has been waking up in the middle of the night. Last night, he woke me saying he felt like he was having a panic attack—racing heart and hyperventilation. I hadn’t associated it with his Call of Duty play, but when we talked about it last night, I realized that the timing lined up. Is there any evidence of violent video games bringing on stress or anxiety in young players?
     —Shoot or Scare, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

A: Dear Shoot or Scare,

The key question is this: Did your son realize the association between the time when he started playing Call of Duty and his increased general anxiety punctuated by panic attacks?

The research shows that at his level of brain development, your son is more likely than an adult to have increased fear/anxiety after playing violent video games, but less likely to have the insight necessary to make the connections. He will be address this problem more effectively if he “discovers” the relationship himself and devises a solution. If he has not made the association, it will work better if you explore with him what might be stressing him at the moment, gently steering him toward his own observations rather than telling him yours.

The reason that kids get so involved with Call of Duty (the biggest selling video game to date) and other action games is that they are designed to put players on high alert—to get their adrenaline flowing and their hearts racing, ready for unexpected turns of events. Adolescents seek new experiences and sensations—it is an integral developmental task at your son’s age. Video games are one way in which they can vicariously experience fear and mastery of that fear in a situation that is not life-threatening.

Gently encourage your son to stop playing for two weeks or so and see whether his anxiety lessens. If it does, he may want to decide whether playing the game is worth living with the symptoms. If it doesn’t, the adrenaline rush of gaming may have unmasked an underlying anxiety—he may want to take a closer look at what else is happening in his life, and consider seeking help from a talk therapist to develop effective coping strategies. See this related post for more information.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician®

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