Last Holiday Season my wife and I relented to kid-pressure and wrapped an electronic game about killing in ribbons and bows and gave it to our children as a “gift.” Trying to encourage personal responsibility, I set the upper time limit at a ridiculous three hours per day, with the assumption that no one in their right mind would possibly be interested in three mind-numbing hours of mayhem. Ahem, big mistake.
While I felt in my heart that this sort of game is toxic to developing minds, and souls, it did seem as if all the boys gamed, and to deny gaming would be to block social connection. Yet as a psychologist I was aware that when the brain is tricked into thinking that it is being active, it leads to exhaustion (due to adrenaline stimulated but not burned off by the actual fight-flight it was meant to power, back in the day at least). This cycle of stress without release, and without returning to a calm center (via yoga, meditation, journaling, etc.) can lead to lowered cognitive function and, eventually, to heart disease.
Some research suggests that gaming improves reaction times, but there is a downside to this in that every stimulus is perceived as an attack, even after the game has been turned off. We don’t think of the Buddha as having quick reaction time, we think more of the traumatized soldier who sadly goes into fight-flight mode at the slightest provocation. In our house, gaming seemed to lead to zombie eyes and increased quarreling and cruelty between siblings.
Then came a study in Psychological Science (Vol. 20, No 5) by Douglas Gentile, Ph.D. which concluded that nearly one out of ten youth gamers exhibit pathological patterns of use (i.e. disrupted ability to function socially, psychologically, academically). Dr. Gentile prefers the term “pathological use” over “addiction,” but the main message is that yes, it is a clinically significant problem in ten percent of the kids who play—which is an awful lot of kids.
So… I took the games away last week. And during de-tox our house was a bit like The Man with the Golden Arm meets The Lost Weekend meets Trainspotting. Fun. I felt like “addiction” was perfectly fine word to describe the bargaining, rage, misery and despair that ensued. I know, or pretty much know, that I am on the right track to hold a limit, but then what is this whole gaming phenomenon about anyway?
The usual suspects include an outlet for aggression, immediate reinforcement, wishes for feelings of power and boosting a false sense of self-esteem that comes from “winning” at something. Then there is the issue of numbing out and avoiding whatever pain lurks beneath the surface (I drink to forget. Forget what? I don’t know, I forgot.).
The low-point was when, about to drop my son at his friend’s house, he turned to me and said, “I hope you die in a car accident on the way home.” Now the dark irony of me trying to write a parenting blog as my child tells me that I’m a terrible parent is far from lost on me.
I told him that if I happened to die on the way home, my last words to him would have been that I love him and wish for him to have a great life. I also said that if the universe wants me dead I will be dead, and we would just have to see if my love was stronger than his hate.
Still, I wasn’t feeling chatty and thought I’d drop him, thank the mom and get out. Yet the mom told me that she’d been reading my blog and how much she appreciated it. My narcissism couldn’t resist her praise, and we started to talk—and it turned out her kid wasn’t talking to her at that moment. I told her my tale of woe and the long and the short of it was that she, and her husband, gave me some love and a couple of good hugs and it really helped. I love our Sangha, and I love the world.
On the way home I was tempted to text my son, “In heaven, JK,” but thought better of it. Our kids need to separate, and they need to hate us sometimes without us taking it personally, and for that we parents need each other for comfort and solace. As for games, I think I’m going to hold it to one hour (once he’s able to show respect and non-violence outside of the game, and then contingent on continued positive behavior). I also thought that in a way, my son was functioning as my own Shadow. (That which we cannot be conscious of materializes and meets us as our fate, says C.G. Jung). Since I’ve been on this “love the world” kick, doing yoga, blogging, helping… maybe I got a little disconnected from my own Shadow and so my kid ended up with a little extra hate on his plate that he need to feed back to me. Perhaps it’s even possible that all this virtual killing is part of some global step toward non-violence. If all of us can own our Shadow, we wouldn’t need to project it out an make wars against it. And maybe, for all I know, kids playing killing games will grow up to make a more peaceful world. My conclusion: I’m going to play a little bit of the killing game (when he starts talking to me again), and like my yoga, I’ll dedicate it to loving the world. I’ll let you guys know if anything interesting comes out of it.
Thanks for reading this rather long post. I am truly working my way toward shorter posts, as I have also decided to put a limit on my own blogging (so that I don’t help everyone else at the expense of my own kids). That means that this blog is going to somehow try to be more like an ear than a mouth. It’s not me here, it is us—working together to love the world and all our children. So, tell us something good, tell us something bad. We are listening.
Perhaps we might dedicate today to those ten percent of kids who are, for whatever reason, playing a little too many hours of killing games; perhaps our love will ultimately prove stronger than their hate.
p.s. For more on Dr. Gentile’s research in this area see: http://www.drdouglas.org/page_resources_articles_2009gab.html