Does this scenario sound familiar? Your child has been playing video games for a while — maybe hours, perhaps all day. So you ask them to stop. And without even taking their eyes off the video screen, they plead with you, “OK, but just one more level! I need to reach one more level.”   

The Urban Dictionary cleverly defines this all-too-common gamer response as the “just one more level” syndrome. Gamers are unwilling or unable to stop playing until they complete the next game level. And then they often try to negotiate with their parents for even more playing time so they can reach yet another level.

No doubt, video and internet games are designed to keep your children engaged. But can gaming be unhealthy? When does gaming become an addiction?  

Researchers have not yet come to a consensus as to whether extreme gaming qualifies as an addiction; they say more research is needed. But constant gaming can be a disorder. In fact, the World Health Organization included “gaming disorder” in its latest medical reference publication, “International Classification of Diseases.”

Parents can keep a log for one week to determine their child’s video game usage. Based on the number of hours or signs of other problems (see below), you may want to talk to your child’s pediatrician for advice.

Signs and symptoms of gaming disorder

In adults, doctors may diagnose gaming disorder if the patient engages continually in gaming despite negative consequences, and the signs of this behavior are evident for at least one year. This means that gaming takes priority over the gamer’s family and social life, education and job.

But what about teenagers and younger children? To determine whether your child’s gaming habits are unhealthy, consider these questions based on information from Common Sense Media and the American Academy of Pediatrics:

  • Is your child preoccupied with the desire to play video and internet games?
  • Do you notice mood or behavior changes?
  • Are your child’s grades suffering?
  • Does your child stay up late into the night playing video games?
  • Is your child excessively sleepy during the day?
  • Does your child complain of dry eyes, a headache or backache?
  • Does your child show little or no interest in nongaming activities?
  • Does your child have little interest in spending actual face-to-face time with friends?

If your child shows these signs, talk with your pediatrician. Sometimes excessive gaming is a result of other issues like depression, a learning disorder or social problems. Doctors say that children experiencing these problems naturally turn to activities that give them a sense of achievement and control.

Reduce your child’s gaming to a healthy level

Parents should take an active role in how and when their children play video and internet-based games. Here are some suggestions:

  • Do not allow video gaming within 30 minutes of bedtime.
  • Encourage creative play and outdoor physical activities.
  • Encourage your child to play games that involve multiple players, including friends and family members.
  • Keep gaming and media devices in a common family area, not in your child’s bedroom.
  • Limit gaming time to a maximum of one hour per day. Make it a household rule that applies to parents, too.
  • Make all gaming consoles “family property” rather than owned by one child.
  • Plan media-free family time regularly.
  • Provide ample playtime without the use of the internet and gaming devices.
  • Set a visible timer that signals your child when it’s time to stop gaming.

Before you allow your child to play a video or internet-based game, check the content. Find out whether the video features virtual violence or mature content. The game’s packaging will feature the Entertainment Software Rating Board rating guide, which is similar to the movie rating system and suggests whether the game is appropriate for certain age levels.

Take control and make in-person interaction a priority

An article in Psychology Today offers this thought about children and gaming: “If the child can pull themselves away from a game to join the family for a conversation over dinner and shows interest in other activities, like sports or socializing with friends, then they are not addicted.”

As a parent, try to stay positive and calm, and set limits. When your child begs for “one more level,” stick to your intuition, recall the rules you’ve laid out and turn off the electronics.

Make face-to-face time with family and friends a priority. Suggest a walk in the park, a bike ride or help with preparing dinner. If your child is offered fun and engaging alternatives to gaming, they just might be more likely to say yes.

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