Family Almanac

Time to Pull the Plug on Son's Gaming Habit

By Marguerite Kelly
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 30, 2007

Q. I thought my thoughtful, sensitive, conscientious, kind, funny, handsome son would grow up to be successful, happy and self-sufficient but he's 20 now, he's passed only one or two classes in his two years at community college and he quits every part-time job he gets.

He is addicted, I think, to online gaming. He says he isn't interested in anything but playing his game -- a game, I'm ashamed to say, I gave him years ago -- and only wants to work for the maker of the game or the gaming industry. That's fine with us, but I think he should finish college first or join the Air Force, where he could use his simulation skills; this idea didn't work out and counseling didn't work either.

And yet he is absolutely no trouble. He lives at home, shaves and showers every day, plays with the dogs and does the few chores we ask him to do. He seldom uses the debit card we gave him and he doesn't drink, smoke, vandalize, drive fast or get girls pregnant -- perhaps because he is rather awkward socially and extremely shy.

Since we think he could get good marks if he tried -- he has no learning or mental disabilities -- we plan to delete the game from every computer in the house unless he gets A's and B's (or maybe C's) next month.

Will this make a bad situation worse? I fret, weigh options and drop to my knees in prayer, but I still don't know the answer. What will work, what won't and what I am in for?

A.The Internet is a marvel and -- if you skip the chat rooms and most of the blogs -- it's a fast and reasonably accurate resource, but its downside is great and growing. Internet addiction affects at least 6 percent of U.S. users and has reached epidemic proportions in Asia, where rehab centers are opening up rapidly.

According to psychologist David N. Greenfield, director of the Center for Internet Behavior (, addiction to interactive strategy games is second only to cybersex and porn addiction, because gamers are technologically savvy today and the games are more sophisticated, and more addictive, than ever.

If gaming addiction works like other addictions, Greenfield says, every time the player scores, the brain produces extra dopamine, which makes him feel powerful, happy and eager to play again. When the good feelings wear off, the player often feels guilty, ashamed or depressed and then plays another round to feel good again. Psychologist Maressa Hecht Orzack, Harvard professor and director of the Computer Addiction Study Center at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. (, has a slightly different take. She finds nearly all gamers have a mood disorder, anxiety or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or relate to objects better than to people. She says the majority of them are male, bright, shy, bored and have poor social skills and low self-esteem. They're after the fun, peace, relaxation and the sense of belonging they get when they play, but when addicted, they lose far more than they gain.

The time your son spends on the computer is time that he's not reading a book, not creating an original idea, not jogging in the park, not interacting with people and not improving his social skills. He is putting life on hold.

But before deleting the game abruptly, you and your husband should read "The Battle for Azeroth: Adventure, Alliance and Addiction in the 'World of Warcraft,' " edited by Bill Fawcett (BenBella, $18) to find out what these strategy games are all about, and then see a therapist to learn how to set limits and structure for your son.

He also needs to see someone, preferably a cognitive behavioral therapist who understands Internet addiction and can teach him how to interact with people as easily as he does with a computer. This process should be quicker if he also joins On-Line Gamers Anonymous (, which uses the 12-step program, or, run by the Center for Online Addiction Recovery.

At the same time you should install ComputerTime's family pack (SoftwareTime, $40) on your PCs or Mac Minder (Luma Code, $30), if you have Apples. Once programmed, your son will be able to go online only on the days, times and hours you permit, and in sessions that last only as long as you allow. In this way, he should learn to moderate his behavior, without much fussing from you.

Finally, get copies of David Greenfield's "Virtual Addiction" (New Harbinger, $13) and "Caught in the Net" by Kimberly S. Young (Wiley, $31). And then take a family vacation at a computer-free cabin in the woods for a week to read these books and get to know each other again.

Questions? Send them toadvice@margueritekelly.comor to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company