Many people say they like gaming because it’s an effective stress-reliever—it’s engaging entertainment that keeps your mind off immediate real-world problems. It’s relaxing and it works as a mood-enhancer for many. Gaming isn’t necessarily any better or worse than reading fantasy novels or other ways to relieve stress. However, there are a few differences between gaming and other stress relievers that might make a huge impact on kids’ stress.
- Other players: When your kids join a guild or a team, that’s like RSVPing to a party. They can’t just drop out at the last minute, at least not without breaking etiquette rules. Rude! Unfortunately, this makes it easy for them to overbook. Raid? Or dinner with the family? Fulfilling these obligations can create a lot of stress when demands compete or either side becomes unreasonable.
- Savepoints: Different games have different places at which it’s okay to save. One game might give players the option to quit whenever they want, while another might have an hour+ gap between savepoints. Of course it’s always possible to just log off, but when force-quitting means your kids are losing hours of gameplay, they won’t be happy about it. On the other hand, they might not be too happy about being late to school because they haven’t hit that savepoint, either. Save gaps are stressful for everybody. (Check out our game library to find out what the save mechanism is in your kids’ favorite games.)
- Inertia: Okay, there are a lot of pastimes where this is a problem. But gaming can be especially tough since it’s hard to walk away or stretch whenever you want. Physical stress can be just as annoying as mental—and sitting in a hunched position for hours at a time without moving your head is a recipe for neck and back pain.
- Adrenaline: Many games are designed to get the blood pumping and the adrenaline flowing; it’s what makes them fun, in the same way that a baseball game or an exciting movie is fun. This is generally harmless, but some kids might react negatively to the increased adrenaline, especially if they’re getting all worked up in the wee hours of the morning. Too much of any one thing will always be problematic.
Your kids might feel gaming stress for a few other reasons, too. In online games, harassment by other plaers can be a problem. Or kids might feel guilty about missing social obligations. Sometimes kids find themselves playing a game that’s too mature, and that makes them uncomfortable. In a few cases, pathological gaming or a gaming addiction (which we will discuss in a separate article) is a factor.
So how do you know if gaming is stressing your kid out? There are games that look horribly stressful but might be just fine, like Starcraft II, and others that seem innocent but can be really tough, like the cute, cartoonish Pikmin.
(Personally I find Candy Crush pretty stressful, because I’m bad at puzzles, but maybe that’s just me.) On top of that, all kids are different. One person might react wildly differently than another to the same game. Here are some tips for gauging game stress:
- When the gamer complains of neck and back pain, headaches, or often feels inexplicably sick.
- When the gamer mentions wanting to stop playing, but continues to do so anyway.
- When the gamer’s frustrations last beyond gameplay, or when those frustrations are taken out in the real world (for instance, hitting the keyboard).
- When the gamer suffers from nightmares or sleeplessness. Here’s how one parent found out about a teenager’s anxiety.
- When the gamer’s behavior changes, (for example, increased irritability or moodiness).
- When the gamer has trouble concentrating.
It’s important to note that just because gamers are stressed, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are stressed because of the game. Games are a proven stress reliever, and they may be using the game as a coping mechanism for another problem. This isn’t necessarily a negative thing, though it’s good to keep an eye on things.
Finally, we need to address what parents can do if games really are stressing kids out. Here are a few tips:
- Force them to take a snack break. Make some food together. Benefits include stress relief, bonding, and cookies.
- Make yourself the excuse. If the problem is other players, tell your kids to use you as a scapegoat, or help them get creative with other excuses—some of my favorites are “my brother started a fire in my attic, gotta go!” or “my aunt just called and asked me to help her find her hairless cat…it’s below freezing tonight, don’t want the poor guy to get frostbite.”
- Offer some other activity, especially one that gets them up and moving. Walking my dogs was a favorite of mine when I was a teenager. The best diversions are ones that feel as fun as the game; i.e. “take the garbage out” isn’t going to be a fan fave.
- If the problem is nighttime playing, set a curfew. They’re off at 10 p.m. or there will be repercussions. For instance, playing till midnight today means no gaming tomorrow. Maybe even all week.
- If the problem is awkward savepoints, make sure you know what those saving mechanisms are. Figure out what the average time between points is, and don’t let your kids play the game before school if there’s going to be a time conflict.
- If the problem is mature content, talk to your kids to find out if there’s anything about the game that’s making them uncomfortable or that they don’t understand. Find out if they’re sleeping okay. If there is a mature content issue, it’s okay to take the game away, but make sure you also have a conversation about it. Removing the source of the discontent won’t necessarily get rid of the discontent. In fact, some kids will want to keep playing simply because they want answers to their questions. If you can step in and give them those answers without exposing them to things they’re not ready for, that’s a positive outcome in a negative situation.
- If you’re not sure whether it’s the game or something else that’s stressing them out, ask questions. Try to gauge when the stress is the highest—is it after play, or is it after school? Sometimes stress is multidimensional; for instance, if your kids are getting bad grades, they might game to relieve stress, but in doing so they might sacrifice precious homework time. This doesn’t make it the game’s fault that the grades are bad. In fact, taking the game away might do more harm than good. (Everyone needs some time to relax!) However, it might be time to set aside some time for assignments.
All of this being said, games are not a major source of stress for most kids. Teenagers especially have a lot of stress-inducing stuff going on in their lives, and it’s important to not jump to conclusions when signs of stress show up. If you think your kids are having trouble with stress, check out these resources to find out more.