Do you wonder why boys and men are so attracted to video games? Is your son addicted to video games? What are healthy ways to balance the love of video games with other healthy life practices?
If you are wondering any of these things, you are not alone. Whereas most boys and men (and girls and women) do use video games responsibly, gaming addiction rates are increasing. And many parents are not sure where the healthy lines should be in raising their sons.
Here are some important things to know.
The right hemisphere of the male brain is mainly dedicated to visual-spatial processing (video games are visual and spatial), so it should not be a surprise that males will tend to like visual-spatial stimulants (which video games are).
Hormones and neuro-transmitters also matter. Boys and men are driven by testosterone and vasopressin. Males tend to bond through aggression activities (testosterone) and territorial/hierarchical challenges (testosterone and vasopressin). Even very sensitive boys who don’t like team sports and are less aggressive on the gender spectrum still might enjoy the virtual aggression of gaming. So, in general, video games are aggression-, challenge-, and competition-oriented and thus will tend to attract male biochemistry.
Gaming can be a great way to chill out, bond, hone spatial skills, and even help treat some forms of attention issues, but there can be a downside to frequent gaming.
One downside can be what I call “short-term false reward syndrome.” This can affect male motivation in the long-term.
When our brains feel like we’ve accomplished something, the caudate nucleus can become quite active and stimulate dopamine (the feel-good chemical) throughout our bodies and brains. When a boy does well in his schoolwork, helps his sibling solve a problem, wins a debate with dad or mom, or achieves something difficult on his own, his brain light ups and he becomes motivated to keep doing this good stuff!
Video game success creates the same internal reward in the short term, but it can be a “false reward.” If a boy is playing a lot of video games for too long per day, his brain will feel a natural reward-chemistry and think “I’ve accomplished a lot, I’m succeeding a lot, I’m growing, I’m maturing,” while he has actually only accomplished successful gaming.
He has not achieved maturation of social-emotional intelligence; he has not achieved good grades, read books that will change his life, developed good athletic performance, or inculcated motivation to succeed. He has not defined a real, true purpose in life, built character, or learned physical fitness.
Since video games are both helpful and can carry negatives, each family has a right to develop its own standards for gaming and stick to them. These standards need to be developed based on the boy you are raising, rather than any social trend in peer groups or in the larger culture. Gaming is so such a primal part of brain and biochemical development (as well as such fun!) that it needs to be dealt with individually.
A good rule of thumb to use as a baseline for your family discussions is this: if your son is doing well enough in your estimation in these five main markers, then his gaming may not be an issue at all.
- Character development
- Social-emotional maturation
- Academic performance
- Physical fitness
For him, the games may will be refining his spatial talent, channeling energy, and inspiring heroic adventures. They may also be good interactive bonding experiences. So if your son’s “developmental baseline” is fine, then gaming is fine.
But if your son is fits any of these characteristics, then video games may need to be curtailed or used as leverage (“You can play Call of Duty again in two weeks after you complete your schoolwork but not till then”).
- Too sedentary, getting obese
- Not doing homework and/or is getting Cs or lower in your grading system
- Not maturing socially, morally, or emotionally
- Not achieving success in one or more areas of work or purpose
Another good area for family discussion and negotiation involves reading: if your son is not reading but he is playing a lot of video games, you may have a clue that he is gaming too much (and reading too little) to build good brain power, social-emotional cues, and life skills.
After you’ve had family discussions that involve all caregivers and your son, I hope you’ll set some rules in place and stick to them. The video game console is yours, the house is yours, the family is yours. Video games are a child’s privilege, not a child’s right. Taking them away for a week will not harm a boy or young man.
Most important for older boys (teens or young men): If a son is living in your home and gaming but not working, you may need to take all consoles away for a month or two or more, forcing him to get a job. Work is always more important than gaming.