When Gamers Become Parents, Finding Balance Is Next Level … – The New York Times

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Video games appeal to all ages, but when do they become a distraction for parents?

This story was originally published on Aug. 29, 2019 in NYT Parenting.
Alvin Colon’s daily routine might look similar to that of many parents. He starts his day at 5 a.m., by taking a shower and then making coffee for his wife. At 6 a.m., he wakes his 4-year-old daughter and gets her ready for school. After work, dinner and family time, he and his wife put their daughter to bed around 7 p.m. He spends time with his wife until about 9. And then, when everything else is taken care of and his wife heads to bed, he slots in about an hour of video game playing before he goes to sleep.
There was one time, though, when Colon found himself glued to the controller from 10:30 p.m. until 5 a.m., in the throes of an epic gaming session following a big release of a new video game. At the time, his daughter was an infant.
“That was the moment I realized I couldn’t play like that anymore,” Colon, 36, said. “In college, I could do that and sleep in between classes. But there are no days off being a parent. Your child needs you.”
In 2019, the Entertainment Software Association, a trade association of the video game industry, estimated that some 164 million adults play video games and that at least three-quarters of households in the United States have at least one gamer. That same year, the association estimated that, among parents of gamers, 57 percent play video games with their children at least once a week. While there’s no hard evidence on how many gamers are parents who play by themselves, or whether they play while also caring for a young child, it stands to reason that a fair number of video game players — whose average age is 33, according to the E.S.A. — are also new parents.
Colon said that his wife understands his hobby (he’s played video games since he was 5 years old), though he knows that it can be a problem if there isn’t a balance between gaming and the daily responsibilities of being a father. “I’ve seen divorce from gaming when a person gets too sucked in,” he said.
But some parents say that gaming has helped them form communities that keep them engaged and happy. Benjamin McClain, 29, a new father and competitive video game player, said he relies on gaming as a way to regularly interact with groups of like-minded peers. It also serves as an additional source of income: McClain broadcasts a live feed of his game playing to audiences on the Twitch platform, and subscriptions to his Twitch stream bring him $150 a month. Before he became a dad, he was playing about five hours a night to his follower stream, after his full-time job, making about $600 a month. Now, he averages about three to four hours per night, he said, though it’s more sporadic.
McClain said that he wouldn’t be able to keep up his gaming habit without his wife’s support. “I don’t think I’ve felt as selfish as a person until I had a kid,” he said. “There’s always something you should be doing.”
Mark Sims, 32, the father of a 7-year-old daughter, streams his game playing to an audience of several hundred to several thousand, while talking openly about his depression and being a father. Sam Seum, 27 — a gamer, actor and mom to a 7-year-old son — runs an online support group for parents who game and talks to kids and adults about finding balance. She spoke on a panel last fall at TwitchCon, a convention for the live-streaming platform, about successfully integrating parenting and streaming.
Both Sims and Seum say they also don’t get enough sleep — they just don’t have the time.
Many new parents today grew up with gaming consoles in their homes, which followed them to adult life. For many gamers, video games present a way to make friends, to feel like they’re achieving something, and maybe to make some money doing it. Games can also be a coping mechanism. When a dramatic life event happens, like the birth of a child, games are where a new parent might find respite.
One new father, Jim Festante, 41, said that during the first six months of caring for his newborn, he spent some nights sacrificing what sleep he might have gotten to blow off steam by playing video games. “It was necessary self-care,” said Festante. “It was definitely necessary.”
Festante’s experience isn’t unusual, according to Christopher Ferguson, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Stetson University, who co-wrote the book “Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games Is Wrong.” In it, Dr. Ferguson and his co-author argued, after reviewing research, that one session of playing video games (the length of which can vary, Dr. Ferguson said) can release similar amounts of the “feel-good” brain chemical dopamine as eating a bowl of ice cream. “It’s the No. 1 benefit,” said Dr. Ferguson. “Games are stress-reducing and children are not.”
As with the occasional bowl of ice cream, Dr. Ferguson said, there’s nothing “inherently wrong” with playing a video game to relieve stress every now and then. But experts have said that when it becomes too hard to stop gaming — even when it’s affecting other parts of your life — that’s when it might become a problem.
[How to avoid burnout when you have little ones.]
Laura Stockdale, Ph.D, a psychologist and project manager for Project M.E.D.I.A. at Brigham Young University, is currently collecting data on 510 gaming and nongaming families over the next 20 years to research the effects of media on child development and the likelihood that pathological gaming tendencies will develop. Dr. Stockdale said she worries that parents who binge on video games, especially in front of their children, might be neglecting to show how much they value their children by failing to listen or pay attention to them while they game.
Dr. Stockdale said she gets concerned, for instance, when parents justify their own video game habits by saying that it’s O.K. because their child is “is playing with” them. “Their 3-year-old isn’t actually playing,” she explained. “You can’t just hand a 3-year-old a controller and say they’re playing.”
Last year, the World Health Organization included “gaming disorder” as a clinically recognizable and significant syndrome in its latest edition of the International Classification of Diseases. Gaming disorder can occur with both online and offline games and includes symptoms such as “marked distress” or an inability to function in a variety of situations, both personal and professional.
Douglas Gentile, Ph.D., a psychologist and professor of developmental psychology at Iowa State University who studies the effects of gaming in children and adults, said that pathological gaming behavior (a term that he said can be used interchangeably with gaming disorder or gaming addiction) is defined as forgoing family time, work or social engagements to game. Typically, experts won’t define something as an addiction until it impacts more than one area of a person’s life, Dr. Gentile said, or when someone wants to cut back on gaming, for example, but can’t.
Pathological gaming habits can also be signs of other issues, like anxiety or depression, according to Dr. Ferguson. Dr. Gentile’s studies, for instance, found that gaming behaviors that have reached the level of addiction are not just symptoms of depression and anxiety, but are also reinforcers of them. Dr. Stockdale said that her research has shown that depressed parents who have pathological gaming symptoms are also likely to feel less competent as parents, and more stressed.
Based on his research, Dr. Gentile said that video games still play a part in furthering depression and anxiety. He speculated that the next generation of children gamers, and eventually parent gamers, may have very little emotional maturity because video games have taught them that difficult emotions can be addressed or controlled by an outside source (the video game) and not internally (their emotions). “The gamer is changing their external stimulation to get away from that emotion,” he said.
According to Dr. Ferguson and Dr. Gentile, there aren’t any strict recommendations for how long parents with a daily gaming habit should be playing each day, because individuals are so different. Dr. Stockdale did say, however, that parents should be wary of going much more over two hours of entertainment-based screen time per day. For children, it’s a good idea to follow the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines for screen time, which recommend avoiding any screen time (other than video chatting) for children younger than 18 months, and no more than one hour of high-quality programming for 2- to 5-year-olds.
[Are you anxious about how technology affects your kids? We want to hear from you.]
Playing video games for a few hours a day might be one way of relaxing, but there are often healthier non-screen outlets for parents looking to relieve stress. Exercise, eating healthy and getting enough sleep can greatly help combat tension and anxiety.
If you do seem to have deeper problems, such as not being able to put down a controller when your partner or child needs you, it might be necessary to seek help from a medical professional, particularly one who has experience dealing with impulse control disorders. Dr. Ferguson suggested that if you notice that your gaming habits are affecting your daily life, you should start by discussing it with your partner.
When it comes to being a gamer and raising a family, Dr. Ferguson said that balance and communicating what’s fair for all parties is important. “Everyone needs some time away from your kid so you can feel like a human being,” he said. “It’s a matter of talking with your partner and coming up with a recipe.”
Haniya Rae is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn.


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