How video games drive anxiety — and how to break the cycle

You don’t have to ban gaming to stop videogame stress.

Alexandra Samuel
Nov 18, 2017 · 10 min read

Can videogames and screen time help kids and families reduce stress and cultivate self-regulation— or does screen time inevitably stress us out?

It’s a question I’ve been wrestling with for years, and especially, the past two days, while attending workshops on Self-Reg. Self-Reg is the science-based approach to helping kids (and parents!) reduce stress-driven behaviors so they can be calm, alert and happy. Your best guide to Self-Reg is Stuart Shanker’s book, the overview of Self-Reg provided by Dr. Shanker’s Mehrit Centre, or the terrific introductory graphics on their site.

But let me try a quick recap. Most “behavior issues” (in both adults and kids) are driven by the limbic system: the part of our brain that kicks in when we’re alarmed. Parenting and education approaches that emphasize self-control (like the infamous Marshmallow Test) miss the fact that when a kid’s alarm system goes off, they can’t exercise self-control: Shanker refers to this as “going limbic” or “red brain” mode. That’s why we need to teach our kids (and ourselves) to manage all five domains of stress (biological, emotional, cognitive, social and pro-social): so that they can achieve, maintain and return to an underlying state of self-regulation, which Shanker refers to as “blue brain”.

Source: The Mehrit Centre

The stress behaviors that show up when a kid “goes limbic” are not always a response to an obvious stressor. As Shanker described, repeated or chronic stress can break the limbic brain’s alarm system so that safe situations are perceived as a threat, and dangerous people or situations are perceived as safe. Furthermore, our brains can be conditioned to associate specific situations or stimuli with danger, so that our alarm system kicks in (and triggers fight or flight) as soon as we encounter something that reminds us of a previous experience. (I realized that this is why Peanut won’t go to class: thanks to past school traumas, simply walking into a classroom triggers his alarm system.)

As parents, it’s our job to help kids learn to understand and work with their limbic system. It’s work that many adults need to do, too: it’s what my social change and NGO colleagues get from learning about triggers through The Art of Leadership, or from learning about energy management through The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit.

Tech tools can be really helpful in helping both adults and kids track and train our stress systems. I’ve shown Peanut how apps like Instant Heart Rate can help him measure his level of arousal, or how MoodMeter can help him notice and track his energy and mood. Audiobooks like A Boy and a Turtle and Enchanted Meditations for Kids have helped my kids practice how to self-calm. And I have personally used both Headspace and Insight Timer to build my skills at tuning into my body and reducing my tension levels.

But let’s be honest: if a kid spends fifteen minutes a day listening to meditation recordings or using other self-regulation apps, that feels like a huge win! Meanwhile, they might be spending two or three (or ten!) hours a day playing video games.

And what is the experience of playing videogames?

Think about platformer or side-scrolling runner games like Super Mario Bros. or Gameloft games like Spider-Man Unlimited (which I’ve previously criticized). The experience of playing that game is: Run. Run. Jump. Run. (Anxiety, and adrenaline release.) . Level up. (Dopamine rush!)

Or the games that involve regular check-ins to earn gold or XP, like Fallout Shelter: Gotta check in. Gotta check in. Gotta check in. (Anxiety, anxiety, anxiety.) Checked in! Got my points! (Dopamine rush!)

Or a shooter/combat game— even a playful one, like the Lego games: Chase. Fight. Chase. Dodge. Chase. Fight. (Anxiety/adrenaline/anxiety/adrenaline.) Level complete! (Dopamine rush!)

In other words, we are training our kids’ brains that triggering their internal alarm systems will lead to a dopamine reward.

We are priming the anxiety pump even more when we let kids play games that more closely mimic real-world threats. As Shanker himself writes in The Self-Reg View of Violent Video Games:

The problem here is that these games have a powerful effect on the limbic system and the brain stem: the mammalian and reptilian brains. Neither is equipped to distinguish between “game” and “reality”: between “real threat” and “make-believe”. The former is searching for predators or prey in exactly the same way that it would do in the wild, while the latter is primed to respond with an instant spurt of epinephrine and norepephrine to increase heart rate and blood pressure: over and over and over.

Even if we can see that these games are designed to tap into the limbic brain and activate our alarm systems, that doesn’t mean our kids will recognize when videogames are driving their anxiety. Peanut insists that videogames are relaxing for him. But if gaming (or other experiences) have damaged a kid’s alarm system, that kid is not going to detect when a game is triggering a stress response.

So we need to substitute our judgment for theirs. That doesn’t mean banning videogames: if your kid is an avid gamer, a sudden cut-off is likely to cause even more stress. You might be tempted to treat this as a one-time-only crisis, but think about all the associations that could re-trigger your kid’s alarm on a daily basis. For my kid, game time is associated with 4 pm (after school), car trips, restaurant visits and babysitter nights. If I took away all his games, I’d have to buckle up for a fresh limbic response every single time one of those situations re-triggered his alarm over losing game access.

An alternative is to take a more nuanced approach to gaming, and to recognize that not every game necessarily involves that anxiety/dopamine cycle. Watch your kid’s reaction to specific games (not just game play in general) and track which games (or types of games) leave them in a state of heightened alert. Consider logging game choice, play time and heart rate for a week or two. (Peanut and I did that as a homeschooling project a few years ago.)

In the past six months, we’ve worked with our autism consultant (the fabulous Vicki Parnell, who also moderates the Self-Reg Parenting group on Facebook) to eliminate the video games that seem to trigger the anxiety/dopamine cycle for Peanut. There are three pieces to this approach.

1. Establish guidelines for which types of games will and won’t be allowed.

Start by thinking about the types of games your kid plays, and the game mechanics that these involve. Here’s a list of game types (shooter, puzzle, role-playing, etc), though remember that even within a genre, game mechanics (how you actually play, score points or win) can vary significantly. That’s why it’s useful to look at something like the Wikipedia overview of game mechanics, so you can think about particular kinds of game experiences that trigger your kid.

Then distill your general principles into guidelines for your kid. If your kid does better when they have input, consider using Ross Greene’s Collaborative Problem Solving model to come up with solutions together, particularly if that involves collaborating on exceptions to your overall rules, or finding ways to eliminate the stress-inducing aspects of games that are basically low-stress. Just make sure that you don’t let your kid’s judgment override your own when it comes to which games are stress inducing.

Here are our own family guidelines:`

We will not approve games that involve playing under time pressure, racing, earning gold, or regular check-ins.

Look for games that are puzzles (like Monument Valley or Framed), story adventures, (like Breath of the Wild and Broken Age) and games that get you physically active (like Pokemon Go, Ingress and Wii Sports).

2. Create a list of low-stress games.

To avoid ongoing conflict, create an unambiguous list of the games that are and aren’t allowed. Print it out for your kid to see — when we first introduced Peanut to the idea that we were eliminating stress-inducing games, it was very comforting for him to see that there was still a very long list of games that were still allowed. We keep that list online so that we can update it with new games we add to our repertoire, and so that both parents are on the same page about what is OK.

You can use my list as a starting point (note that there are two or three games on the list that do not fit our overall criteria, but seem to work for Peanut). Another great resource is this list of Therapeutic Video Game Recommendations from Child’s Play. Take a look at your kid’s favorite games and think about which ones (if any) you can allow. If your kid has been allowed to buy/download new games on a regular basis, identify some new games you can add to your list so there are additional options to choose beyond what your kid already plays. (I did that by reading videogame reviews and recommendations on Common Sense Media to compile some new options.)

3. Block access to all disallowed games.

Depending on your kid’s age, temperament and skill level, this could be easy––or difficult. As I’ve previously described, Peanut is very tenacious (and we have way too many devices), so I have had to work very hard to keep him from accessing the games he’s not allowed. That’s meant building out my already comprehensive system for locking him out of devices. Here are my key tools:

  • Circle, for managing our home network. I use it to block access to online gaming sites and servers.
  • OurPact, for managing Peanut’s iPod. I use it to block access to all games during school hours, and just as important, to block his access to the App Store. (But ensures Peanut can still listen to audiobooks or read books through the Kindle app.) I regularly review the list of apps on Peanut’s iPod by looking at the OurPact app on my phone; if I see he has somehow managed to install a disallowed app, I immediately block with OurPact, and then delete it from Peanut’s iPod once he’s asleep.
  • App Store settings, to prevent Peanut from re-downloading previously purchased games on his iPod. In theory we can do this by turning off Family Sharing but in practice that system seems to leak. We could block App Store access on his iPod.
  • Family View on Steam, to control which Steam games Peanut is allowed to play. Steam is a platform with downloadable games that can be played on Mac, PC and some consoles.
  • Parental Controls on the Mac, to prevent Peanut from installing games. We have Peanut’s computer set up so that only my husband and I can install new programs on it. Because Circle blocks online games, and Family View lets us control Steam games, he doesn’t have any way to add new games on his computer.
  • Family Safety control panel for Windows, to keep Peanut from gaming on the Microsoft Surface provided by his school. I used Web Filtering to set “which websites can Peanut view?” to “Peanut can only use the websites I allow”; I set “web filtering level” to “Online communication” (allows everything except adult sites); and I set “allow or block all websites”, to block a long list of gaming sites. Then I used App restrictions to set “which apps can Peanut use?” to “Peanut can only use the apps I allow”; in the list of apps that can be used, I checked everything except Games (now unchecked, i.e. unusable) and Chrome installers (so he can’t re-install from previously downloaded install files.
  • A combination lock, to limit access to console games. Our gaming consoles and console games live in a locked cupboard. When we eliminated all our high-stress games from Peanut’s life, I put those into a separate binder that now lives on a very high shelf in that cupboard. When Peanut has console time, the only games in the binder we get out are the ones he’s allowed to play.

How is this game plan working out? I can’t say it’s been an overnight miracle. It’s more like whack-a-mole: just when we think we’ve eliminated all the stressful games from Peanut’s life, we discover some game he managed to access without permission, or realize a game we thought was OK is actually a stressor.

But after many months, the net is tightening. We have fewer and fewer leaks, which mean Peanut is now spending virtually no time on anxiety-driven games. It hasn’t transformed his overall anxiety levels or alarm response — that is a big long-term job, with a lot of interrelated factors — but it has dramatically reduced the amount of conflict we have around gaming.

Peanut now wraps up his game time with minimal objections, because he’s not hunting for that next dopamine hit. We get some lobbying for disallowed games, but Peanut mostly understands and accepts which kinds of games will or won’t be permitted. One unfortunate side effect is that Peanut has lost his main source of exercise (because he’s no longer jumping up and down for an hour or two a day, as he used to do from sheer anxiety when playing high-stress console games), so we are currently shopping for an elliptical machine he can use while playing his low-stress games. (This is actually his idea!)

Perhaps most important, tackling videogame stressors has led our whole family to regularly and consistently reflect on stress and self-regulation. Every time Peanut asks for a new game, we need to sit down and think about the impact it will have on his anxiety and his internal alarm system. Every time we see Peanut in a state of agitation or dysregulation during or after gaming, we talk with him about what he’s playing and how it might be affecting him, so we’re building a habit of self-reflection. Slowly but surely, videogaming is evolving away from being a stressor for our family, and is instead building our capacity for self-regulation.

The Peanut Diaries

Adventures in parenting an autistic brainiac.

Thanks to Vicki Parnell and Rob Cottingham

Alexandra Samuel

Written by

Keynote speaker. Contributor to Wall Street Journal, HBR, JSTOR Daily. Author, Work Smarter with Social Media. Freelance data journalist and writer for hire.

The Peanut Diaries

Adventures in parenting an autistic brainiac.

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