Q:Our 14-year-old son seems depressed — to us, at least. His principal sees no sign of depression but thinks he's socially anxious. The subjects of counseling and medication have come up. We have suggested to him that he get more exercise and spend less time playing video games and watching TV, but he says he hates sports. He appears to be withdrawing more and more into his video screen world. Our plan of action is to insist that he take up a sport if he wants the freedom to have a computer and video game. We want him to have balance in his life. Your thoughts?
A: I'm in no position to know whether your son is depressed or anxious. If you want answers to those sorts of questions, you and your son would need to see a skilled mental health professional in your area. Then you would have to determine for yourselves whether you feel comfortable with his or her conclusions and recommendations.
However, if my experience is worth something, I can tell you with a good amount of confidence that the syndrome you're describing — obsession with video games, withdrawal from the real world, lack of motivation — is becoming increasingly familiar to me, and more often than not if the teen is a male, video games are part of the picture. Video games are proving to be very problematic for teen boys. More and more researchers are coming to the conclusion that they are addictive — not figuratively, mind you, but literally. They are, after all, a form of gambling. The fact that they don't involve money is beside the point.
In the last few months two separate sets of parents have asked me what to do with 20-something unemployed sons who play video games all day and through most of the night. Those two sons represent thousands of young “men” who are wasting valuable years of their lives playing electronic games that have no redeeming value and pose a real hazard to their emotional and social health.
Before any evaluation of your son can yield a reliable picture of his mental health, the video games have to go. To accomplish that, you have to recognize that you are part of the problem. You've become enablers. First, you cannot “suggest” to a methamphetamine addict that he shouldn't use so much meth, that he needs to get more exercise. If the addict won't give up the drug, then people who have influence and authority in his life need to take it away and make sure he can't get his hands on it again…ever. Second, there's no such thing as an addict being able to strike a “balance” in his life between the addiction and healthy activities. As seems to have happened with your son, an addiction takes the place of healthy activity. As any former addict will attest to, you're either addicted or you're healthy — you can't be both.
I don't know whether your son would benefit from a psychotropic medication, but I can say with reasonable certainty that medication or not, he needs to be released from his slavery to video games. He is not going to voluntarily give them up, so you're going to have to take them away.
For your son and thousands of video-addicted teen boys, I'm hereby proclaiming May 1 as Take Their Video Games Away for Good Day. In my fantasy, millions of boys come home from school that day and find their video game consoles are gone…forever! To paraphrase Louis Armstrong, “What a wonderful world that would be.”
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parenting questions at www.johnrosemond.com.