Danger Ahead: Compulsive Gaming and Media Recluses

(Chapter 6 from The Loving Push: How Parents and Professionals Can Help Spectrum Kids Become Successful Adults by Temple Grandin and Debra Moore, 2015)

Video games are a controversial topic among parents, educators, doctors, and psychologists. Various experts support both perspectives, that they are either beneficial or harmful to developing brains. Proponents claim that video games support problem solving, hand-eye coordination, planning, spatial skills, and perseverance, among other benefits. Critics claim that they increase levels of anxiety and depression and expose kids to bad online behaviour though in-game chats, and that violence in video games makes children less empathetic and more aggressive in their thoughts and actions. Plus, all of us have anecdotal evidence about how games help or harm the children in our lives.

It is not my intention to launch a debate about the pros and cons of video gaming. Rather, I wanted to share a chapter in a book I recently read that talks specifically about the impact of video games on people on the ASD spectrum.

Recreational versus compulsive gaming

First, the authors differentiate between recreational and compulsive gaming. If a person plays video games (sometimes for many hours at a time), but keeps up with their school or job, chores at home, personal hygiene, other interests, social and family relationships, and does not resent being taken away from their games or talk exclusively (or almost exclusively) about their games, then gaming is likely not a problem for them. Unfortunately, for many people with ASD, recreational gaming quickly descends into addictive or compulsive gaming (for a variety of reasons that I will address shortly), and other areas of their lives suffer as a result. Time spent gaming takes away from time that should be dedicated to other endeavours such as: doing homework, keeping active, sleeping, eating a healthy diet, showering, keeping themselves and their living spaces clean, pursuing goals and other interests that had previously been important to them, and socializing with friends and family. The Public Health Agency of Canada estimates that 25% of Canadian children are not getting enough sleep; I suspect screen time contributes to this problem more than we realize.

Video games are designed to act like a drug. Large game designers employ psychologists to help them design products that produce enough in-game reinforcement and rewards to keep players coming back. These rewards give the player a shot of dopamine, the same naturally occurring brain chemical that is manipulated by many street drugs to cause addiction.  

“The game is programmed to respond to your child. The more he advances, the more complex the game becomes. This progressively sucks your kid into the game and activates more dopamine. This schedule of frustration, followed by longing, the euphoric rush of achievement, and then the crash of meeting another programmed game obstacle produces intense cravings.” (p. 116)

Add to the dopamine rush the fact that turning off the game puts the player’s ranking at risk (which can be closely linked to self-esteem for some dedicated gamers), and you have a situation that encourages players to log on and keep playing as long as possible.

Gaming and the autistic brain

Parents of children with ASD report greater problems monitoring electronics use (with the exception of social media) than do parents of neuro-typical kids. Grandin and Moore show the similarities between computer games and the autistic brain: both are repetitive and inflexible. Games are predictable, whereas real life is not; it is (among other things) this lack of predictability in the real world that causes so much stress for people with ASD, so it is not surprising that many find comfort in a more organized virtual world. However, the more players engage with the rules and patterns of the game, the more inflexible they are encouraged to become, which does not serve the player with ASD well.

Video games serve an unmet need in players with autism spectrum disorder. Whereas social connections, finding a community, and feeling comfortable with themselves often pose challenges for those on the spectrum, virtual life solves these problems. Some studies have found that players with ASD form stronger connections to their game avatars than to their own physical selves. Additionally, by playing, they become de facto members of an online community and develop an identity (in some cases an ideal identity) within the context of the game and gain power that they may feel is lacking in their real lives. People with ASD often have a special area of interest that dominates their thoughts and conversations. For compulsive gamers, video games (or a specific video game) often eclipse previous interests and become the special interest.

Some studies have shown cognitive and physiological changes in the brains of people with autism correlated with compulsive gaming activity. Such changes include impaired decision making and memory, and possibly shrinking of the actual grey matter. Additionally, spending too much time in front of a screen negatively impacts social skills of gamers with autism because it limits their ability to practise social skills in real life, negotiate differences, solve social problems, and interact with people who have varied interests and experiences. Often, comments by other players are rude, inappropriate, and sometimes of a bullying nature, which may be emulated in the real world (to their detriment) by players who have not yet mastered social rules and norms of behaviour. And video games are not relaxing; rather, players are in a high state of arousal, and many players with ASD feel very upset if they find a glitch in the game or a character behaves in a way that is unexpected.

Gaming appeals to many people, yet having low self-esteem and poor social competence is a predictor of gaming addictions. Further, compulsive gaming is linked to chronic depression: people turn to video games as a release from their depression, but it makes them feel more depressed, which causes them to play longer, and so on, all while distancing them from the very people who could help them find their way out of depression (see p. 126).

What can parents do?

The American Pediatric Society recommends limiting recreational screen time for children to 1-2 hours per day. If your child is typically spending more time than that in front of a screen, it is time to set some limits.

  1. Establish a baseline by tracking how much time is actually being spent, what important activities are being missed (e.g., sleep, prior interests, chores, time with family/friends), and any behavioural issues related to gaming (e.g., refusing to turn it off, outbursts, constant talk about the game).
  2. Move the computer out of a child’s bedroom and into a space that can be easily monitored. “The biggest predictor of oppositional behavior in ASD male gamers is whether they play in their bedroom or in a shared family space. The second biggest predictor is lack of parental restriction.” (p. 137).
  3. Put restrictions in place. For those that are accustomed to spending many hours each day on technology, it will have to be a gradual paring down rather than immediately reinforcing a 2- hour maximum. Gamers will not be happy to have their tech time reduced, and behaviour might get worse before it gets better. As one parent recently told me, her child was like an addict and the game was his drug. The parent was met with tantrums when it was time to turn off the game, and her son was always looking for the next opportunity to play. Since kids with ASD often have a very strong sense of justice, it may be helpful to point out who is being harmed by their compulsive playing (e.g., other people are doing your chores, you don’t make time to play with your brother, you haven’t been walking the dog).
  4. Build in replacement activities that are fun and engaging. It will be difficult to enforce gaming restrictions if the alternative is doing something unpleasant. Parents have to turn off their own devices at this point and plan activities to do with their child. It may be rekindling a child’s previous interest, making plans for the future, doing family activities such as board games, cooking together, or exercise, or coordinating activities such as clubs or play dates. Most importantly, now is the time to rebuild their confidence, renew relationships, and establish healthy habits.

Some of you are thinking that restricting your child’s gaming would be nearly impossible given your current situation. We understand. Almost every child I meet before they come to camp asks if they can bring a device. You can see the worry on their faces while they await my answer.

Sending a child to camp could be a great activity to build into their schedule to replace time spent gaming and a way to reset their expectations and daily habits at home. At Kodiak, we have limited access to screens (nothing that connects to a cellular network, no access to Wifi, and only two 30-45 minute periods during the day when campers can use a device) and a lot of access to engaging activities and social opportunities. We insist that campers practise good hygiene habits (e.g., brushing teeth and hair, changing their clothes, showering, using sunscreen), build chores right into the morning schedule, have a set bedtime, and have dozens of things to do that (I believe) are vastly more interesting than sitting in front of a video game. Kids get lots of fresh air, opportunities for independent or guided socialization, and the chance to try new activities (like stand-up paddleboarding or fencing) and go back to old favourites (like swimming or crafts).

I am writing this article near the end of a long, cold Canadian winter, and I am all too aware of how little time I am spending outside with my own kids. When the wind is howling and the ground is icy, it’s hard to remember all the fun we have in the McKellar sunshine, but I know once we get to Camp, we won’t be thinking about the time we’re not spending in front of screens; we’ll be too busy being active and laughing with friends.

About the Author

Shari Stoch

Shari has worked at Camp Kodiak since it began in 1991. She has been the Academic Director since 2010, and is one of the Camp Directors. During the year, Shari works for the Peel District School Board as a special education teacher. She earned her Masters of Education from Queen’s University.