Q: Our 18-year-old son started playing video games at age 9 and became addicted gradually. We struggled with him over the years to limit the time he was online. It became the center of his world, especially when he hit puberty and was dealing with insecurity, anxiety, and depression. The games became more and more violent. He withdrew socially and just recently dropped out of college in the first month of his freshman year. He denies having an addiction but has ceased to do anything but play the games all night and sleep all day. His only friends are those who play games with him online. We are trying to get him into a Video Game Addiction Detox program, if there is such a thing, but he is 18 and refuses to go. What do we do?
– Desperate for Detox, in Miami, FL
A: Dear Desperate,
Your story is heartbreaking and, unfortunately, not unique. Without more information and getting to talk to your son directly, I can’t offer anything that can be construed as medical advice. What I can offer is observations on what you have shared and some thoughts about choices you might make. For a definitive plan, seek out the professional advice of someone who knows your son well, a primary care doctor, psychologist, even a former college advisor or school guidance counselor.
You are absolutely right that your son is legally an adult and thus must seek professional help himself. However, as with those addicted to alcohol or other substances, you son may be oblivious to the harm and disability that is obvious to those around him. It’s likely that your son may have begun using video games to distract himself, to “self-medicate” his anxiety and depression. Video games allow users to master environments and can give players a sense of control and self-confidence within these virtual worlds that they may not experience outside of the game. What makes your son’s gaming problematic is that it is consuming his efforts in a way that prevents him from achieving larger life goals. Since your son can’t be admitted to therapeutic care without his consent, the best solution may be to stage an intervention—just as you might if he were addicted to alcohol or drugs.
First, educate and empower yourself with strategies and resources for interventions. There are professional interventionists who can help you through the process if you decide that’s the best route to take. It sounds as if your goal is for your son to agree to entering treatment, so part of your preparation will be to identify a specialist and/or facility where he can receive treatment for anxiety, depression, self-harming behaviors, and video game addiction. You will need to be prepared to admit your son into care immediately following the intervention, as that is when he will be most willing to go.
The intervention will likely involve gathering some close, trusted family members and friends (maybe even some gaming friends) who care about him and whom he trusts, and then confronting him about the issue in a way that is clear, and, most importantly, from a place of love and concern. Tell him that you all have noticed that his video game play has hurt his physical and mental health and that all of you want him to seek out treatment so that he will be happier, healthier, and more able to pursue his life goals. Please keep me updated about how it goes, I am certain that other parents will benefit from your experience.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,