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Most teens game. One psychiatrist wants to make them into 'Healthy Gamers'

The cover of "How to Raise a Healthy Gamer" beside author Alok Kanojia. (Courtesy)
The cover of "How to Raise a Healthy Gamer" beside author Alok Kanojia. (Courtesy)

A new Pew Research Center study found 85% of teenagers ages 13 to 17 say they play video games.

But while they can help kids make friends and cultivate creativity, games — particularly online games like “Fortnite” and “Roblox” — can wreck sleep habits or even foster addiction.

“The challenge with video games is that when we play one game, we don’t just have pleasure in that game,” says psychiatrist Alok Kanojia. “Our brain wants more, and so kids are playing a second game, a third game, a fourth game, and they really don’t want to put it away.”

Kanojia is the author of the new book “How to Raise a Healthy Gamer: End Power Struggles, Break Bad Screen Habits, and Transform Your Relationship with Your Kids.”

The topic hits close to home. Before his residency at Harvard University, Kanojia nearly flunked out of college because he was gaming too much.

“I was stuck in this cycle of playing until absolute exhaustion, so that when my head hit the pillow, I passed out and I did not have to deal with the guilt, the shame, with sort of the realization that I was messing up my life,” says Kanojia. “The only escape was more gaming.”

So Kanojia’s parents took drastic action. They sent him to an ashram in India, where he learned spiritual practices and meditation.

“What I learned in India was how my mind works, because I didn’t understand the rules of the game with my mind,” he says. “Once you understand how the mind works, why it is going into a video game, you can create alternatives to satisfy the mind in a healthier way.”

Kanojia came back resolved to help those with behavioral addictions like his. But he doesn’t encourage completely abandoning games. Rather, he counsels parents and children to “build a life that satisfies your neuroscience, satisfies your brain, and satisfies your psychological needs.”

Through discipline and self-awareness, Kanojia feels like these compulsions will eventually melt away. That’s how it happened for him.

“I still play games, but I don’t play them addictively because my life is full,” he says.” “That’s what we really advocate — to create a life that is worth living.”

3 Questions for Alok Kanojia

Why can video games be perilous for a developing brain?

“It’s like a developing mind is kind of like soft concrete, right? So it’s still wet. It hasn’t really formed yet. So we know that any alterations to the dopaminergic circuitry of a developing brain will actually increase the vulnerability to addictions later in life. So that’s why it’s really tricky, is that it’s not just video games that can make you more prone to other kinds of problematic behaviors in the future.”

You say parents shouldn’t immediately take games away from kids who may have a problem with them. Why?

“So if you look at the core problem with video game addiction and kids and parents, the problem is that the two of you all are not on the same team. Right. So we see all kinds of cases of kids subverting whatever regulations their parents put in place. Kid will start going to a friend’s house and play over there. A lot of the frustration that parents run into is that they’re pushing one way in. The kid is pushing the opposite way and doing a lot of addiction psychiatry work.

“One of the sad realizations I have is you can’t be sober for someone else. And so our approach is to help parents form an alliance with your kids so that the two of you all have shared goals. And I know it sounds impossible, but there are actually evidence based techniques that will show parents how to engage with your kids.”

You also say that parents can make better inroads by asking open-ended questions to try and understand the game, perhaps even sit down and watch them, maybe play with them. Can you model these open-ended questions for us?

“So a question that a lot of parents don’t ask is, ‘What do you like about games? What’s going on in your life? How do you feel about how things are at school? How are things with your friends? What do you enjoy doing?’ So we try to use a lot of what questions because those don’t have a directional judgment. Right. So if I ask, ‘Why do you play games?’ That sounds kind of judgmental. ‘What do you like about games?’ So we sort of adopt this open-ended approach. Then what ends up happening is we also model open-mindedness for our kids.”

James Perkins-Mastromarino and produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Perkins-Mastromarino adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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