The psychological reasons why children love online gaming

With beautifully rendered virtual worlds and the ability to play with friends, it’s no wonder that online gaming grabs the attention of children and teens.   However, the appeal of these games goes far beyond digital quests and survival missions. Online games are deliberately designed around our psychological needs that are often unsatisfied.   By tapping into these needs, online gaming can prove particularly attractive for young people.   Here are some of the psychological pick-me-ups that children love about gaming, and some tips on how to manage them.  

Games help us feel rewarded

Playing video games triggers the release of dopamine – the feel-good neurotransmitter associated with reward and pleasure. In moderation, this can be a good thing! Dopamine plays a crucial role in many important cognitive and neurological functions.  However, too much dopamine can lead to problems like obesity, addiction and compulsive behaviours  Try to balance your child’s gaming habits with other dopamine-boosting activities, such as regular exercise, listening to music and getting enough sleep.   

Games help us feel competent

Every time your child completes a level or wins a battle, they get an instant confidence boost. That’s why many games are based around levels that become increasingly difficult – but not impossible – to overcome. Your child keeps playing the game because it makes them feel a sense of competence and mastery.   Reinforcing your child’s self-esteem offline is key to making sure they don’t depend on playing the game to feel that competence. If they do well in a test, project or creative endeavour, praise them and take interest in their achievement.  

Games help us feel autonomous 

Despite concerns about gaming causing laziness, some games can do the opposite. In fact, sandbox games like Minecraft challenge players to design entire worlds from scratch!   This fulfils some key psychological needs – to create things and to feel autonomous.   Children and teens can spend too much time gaming if they feel that their creativity and autonomy aren’t valued in school or by their families. To address this, find ways of encouraging other forms of creativity and autonomy at home.    

Games help us feel connected 

As gatherings are restricted, gaming with friends online can help to keep your child’s social life alive and improve their mental wellbeing.   However, make sure your child doesn’t become over-reliant on gaming for keeping in touch with friends.   Try to find other ways for them to stay in touch with friends, such as video calls that you can supervise from a distance. Of course, prioritise in-person hangouts when restrictions are lifted!    

When can online gaming be harmful?

Despite the benefits of online gaming, its powerful effects on our psyche can make it a compelling hobby for children and adults. Signs of gaming dependence can include:     
  • Spending excessive amounts of time playing games 
  • Acting defensively when confronted about gaming 
  • Preferring to spend more time gaming than with family or friends  
  • Becoming disinterested in previously important tasks or hobbies 
  • Losing interest in school and struggling to achieve acceptable grades 
  If you notice your child behaving this way, try to talk to them openly about their gaming habits and its impact on other areas of their life.   If the signs become more serious, consider contacting a professional to help you overcome the problem together.   

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