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Video Games: Making Sure the Controller Doesn’t Control Your Child

Americans spent more than 10 billion dollars in video game equipment last year. Video game sales have now surpassed sales of both music and movies. What that means is that for millions of kids and young adults, playing video games has moved beyond a hobby and into an obsession.

Now, before you label me as anti-fun, hear me out. I find nothing wrong with most videos games. In fact, playing them together with your teen is a great way to connect. But some kids and young adults are being consumed by them, and that’s where the problem lies. For some kids, what was once a fun pastime has quickly turned into an addiction. So where is the balance? If your teenager is obsessed with video games, how can you limit, but not eliminate, their interest?

First, I think it’s important for moms and dads to know why teens are so easily addicted to games.

The Draw of Video Games

I’ve found that a large majority of hardcore gamers are guys. There’s something about video games that attract men. In his book, Wild At Heart, John Elridge perfectly describes the inner drive of every guy. He writes that “Adventure, with all its requisite danger and wildness, is a deeply spiritual longing written into the soul of man,” and that “deep in his heart, every man longs for a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue.”

Boys love playing video games because they provide that challenge and adventure. There’s a sense of accomplishment when they beat a level, achieve a high score or complete a mission. Video games scratch an itch every guy has–to conqueror dragons and rescue princesses. What’s more, teenage boys find a sense of value and esteem in playing these games. Even the dorkiest kids can become virtual sports stars, rock stars, cool secret agents or Rambo-like warriors in these games. It’s one thing they can do better than their parents and maybe even their friends, so they relish it. And it’s one place — maybe the only place — where they feel totally in control.

So in order to pull your teen away from the screen, you have to offer them an adventure to take its place. I know this is hard when both parents come home tired at night, or for the single mom working hard to make ends meet. But if all a family does is go to work, go to school, watch TV, sleep and repeat, then your teen is going to say, “life is boring,” and they’ll look for adventure through another means. It might be require some changes and rethinking, but it doesn’t take a lot of time to have an adventure with your child. Build something in the garage. Go to the batting cages. Take him to a concert. Go for a night hike. Shoot hoops at the playground. Eat at a new restaurant you’ve never tried before. If you find your home is a boring place, inject some excitement into your family. Get out and live real life.

When It Becomes All Consuming

Playing video games is a good way to spend time with friends. But kids who are addicted will tell you that they started playing video games with their friends, but then moved on to playing online–against people who they don’t even know. In this scenario, gaming moves from a social pastime to a very isolating addiction.

South Korea boasts thousands of Internet cafes. One owner said, “I’ve seen people who play games for months, just briefly going home for a change of clothing, taking care of all their eating and sleeping here.” Europe’s first detox clinic for video gamers opened in Holland in 2005. One graduate of the Amsterdam program started playing video games 20 years ago. By the time he was in college he was gaming about 14 hours a day and using drugs to play longer.

These are extreme cases of video game addiction, but even less-severe addictions can be dangerous. How can parents tell if their teen is developing a gaming obsession? The book, Playstation Nation, provides a checklist of traits parents should watch for. Does your child:

  • Play almost every day?
  • Play for extended periods (more than three or four hours at a time)?
  • Play for excitement?
  • Get restless and irritable if he or she can’t play?
  • Sacrifice social and sporting activities to play?
  • Play instead of doing homework?
  • Try in vain to limit playing time?
  • Seem to be losing interest in real-life activities?

If your teen is spending way too much time playing video games, or if the games are affecting their motivation or personality, then it’s time to act. Cut back the number of hours they play daily. Shut down the unit and take away the power cord after a certain hour in the evening. Require that they match the time they play video games with equal amounts of other, more productive, non-digital activities. Every hour spent gaming is an hour the teen isn’t doing something more productive, like learning a new hobby, getting exercise, doing homework, or hanging out with the family. Anything that takes over a child’s time and attention for many hours every day should be moderated. And remember, kids play video games on their computers and on smart phones as well–not just using the game box hooked to the TV–so be sure to keep an eye on that as well.


Video gaming can be a great way for moms and dads to stay connected with their kids. I’ve played through many a game with my teens and, especially in my son’s case, it has been a great way to connect, compete, communicate, and laugh (because he usually destroyed me quickly). And along the way we’ve created some of those fun bonding moments that are felt and remembered, if never quite defined. But if gaming takes over your kid’s life, it’s time to take action. Here are some quick tips to help get gaming under control:

  • Discourage children from retreating into games when they are stressed or upset. Don’t let a gamepad become that emotional coping mechanism. Talk honestly about challenges and work through them together.
  • Encourage moderation. Set an egg timer. When it goes off, so does the computer, TV or game console.
  • Limit temptations. Move electronic gaming hardware out of your teen’s bedroom and into a common area.
  • Spend time playing together. Take turns, ask questions and keep interaction going so that teens won’t disappear into the game environment.
  • Capitalize on your child’s fascination with games to channel energy in a more productive direction. One gamer was challenged by his parents to figure out how his favorite games worked, technologically. Today, he’s a computer wiz who recalls, “I think my first meaningful C++ app came just from trying to get a graphic display of all of the internal components and their capabilities.” I have no clue what any of that means, but I’ll bet he’s making more money than I am.

The bottom line is to implement these restrictions for your child, not against them. Tell your kids that you’ll stand beside them through thick and thin, but you’ll stand in front of them when it comes to blocking anything unhealthy, immoral or antisocial that is influencing their life. And that includes controlling their use of video games that might be controlling them. 


Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.

His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.orgYou can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program.  Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.

Author: Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston began working with teens more than 40 years ago as a youth minister and Young Life director. He has authored nearly two dozen books, has written hundreds of articles, and is host of the nationally-acclaimed Parenting Today’s Teens podcast and radio broadcast.