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Teen playing computer gameQ: My 16-year-old son loves playing role-play games on the Internet. We recently became concerned, though, when we found out that the plots often involve torture. We are wondering why he is attracted to this kind of play and if there are any long or short term risks we should know about. We wonder if we should totally restrict his Internet access, but realize that this is not truly a realistic option. We do our best to keep the lines of communication open, but we need some guidance as to how to talk about our concerns with him.
Tongue-tied, in Beverly, MA

A: Dear Tongue-tied,

Seeing your child engaged in this kind of play can certainly be alarming, and your impulse to talk to him about it is right on—but your discussion needs to be driven by reason rather than emotion, or it can backfire. Understanding what might be going on can help.

Kids are often drawn to media violence because it scares, upsets, or alarms them—they are attempting to master the troubling experience. But children who repeatedly engage with it until it doesn’t bother them can become desensitized to not only virtual violence but to real violence as well. This is a big part of the problem with exposure to media violence; it makes violence seem more common than it actually is and changes our beliefs about what’s normal.

Another contributing factor may be your teen’s “big” feelings, which may include a good deal of anger. His interest in these games may be driven partly by a need to explore those feelings. However, engaging in simulated torture is not a therapeutic way to do that. Short-term effects could include signs that he is more on edge, such as increased anxiety, sleep disturbances, and irritability. In the long term, he may see violence as a more acceptable way of addressing conflict.

It sounds like you’ve already set the groundwork for open communication about media messages, and talking about the issue of torture need not be very different. Still, there are some particular approaches that may be helpful in addressing this issue:

  • Help him find a way to explore the “big” feelings. Restricting internet access won’t make the feelings go away. That’s why it can be helpful to have him work with a therapist to find a different, more therapeutic outlet for them, like sports or martial arts.
  • Keep computer in public space, like the dining room table. That way he can play in areas where you can see what he’s doing and discuss it with him.
  • Open a conversation about this game by playing with him, or sitting beside him while he plays. Ask him to teach you about the game and to explain what’s going on in it, how he feels playing it, and what he finds enjoyable about it. Listening to him can help you learn what needs this game is filling, and can open the door to brainstorming other ways to meet those needs.
  • Set limits on content. It may be difficult to be reasonable rather than emotional at this point, but try saying something like, “As your parent, just like I can’t feed you junk food, I can’t let you practice hurting others. I see that you find it exciting, and I know that your rational mind understands it’s only make-believe, but getting used to even simulated torture changes you. I don’t want you to change that way.” Then work with him to find games that excite him but don’t include torture.

Remember that his media interests can offer a window into what he’s processing internally, so a combination of setting limits on the content and helping him find another way to explore and process the feelings should serve the whole family well.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician®

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