Turn your child's gaming habit back into a hobby

Introducing a brand-new approach to a common household bugbear, Game Aware program developer Andrew Kinch is successfully showing teens and parents how to turn an unhealthy gaming habit back into a hobby.

Sick of having to pry your kids away from their games? You’re far from alone. Technology, especially gaming, is the bane of many parents' existence, and as it has evolved so quickly, it’s one we're very much playing catch up with. There’s also no personal frame of reference because computers and 24/7 gaming weren't prolific during our own childhood years.

For Andrew Kinch, former excessive gamer-turned-teacher and Game Aware program founder, it’s a problem he appreciates on a personal level. He grew up playing computer games, and when he found himself in an unfulfilling job underwriting life insurance policies, his use skyrocketed.

But when he made the decision to quit his job and move to Australia, where he now works as a high school PE teacher and Wellbeing coordinator, he says he all but stopped playing. Because of all the positive upheaval in his life, he found he no longer had the inclination, and it was several years before he started playing again – but with it firmly back in the ‘occasional hobby’ basket.

Andrew developed the Game Aware program after watching students playing games on their laptops instead of hanging out during break times. The program, which has been supported by headspace since the early days of its creation, teaches young people how to take ownership and responsibility for their use as well as self-regulate it with support from their parents.  They also spend time determining their own goals and responsibilities and learn how excessive gaming may be costing them opportunities while creating solutions that work for them.

The second prong looks at the mechanics of gameplay and why quality is better than quantity. Andrew explains after a maximum of three or so hours of play, gamers become more frustrated, they start to perform poorly. But instead of giving up, they keep playing to get back to the enjoyment and feeling of achievement the early part of the gaming session gave them, which can’t be done. 

Rather than shorten sessions down to an hour a day, which would seem unsatisfying for many gamers, Andrew suggests gaming for a maximum of four days per week, and ideally not back to back, in his intelligent gaming guide.

The results are promising

George, who appeared alongside Andrew on a recent episode of SBS series Insight, says he joined the Game Aware program at the age of 15 because he was choosing to play games over taking part in other hobbies he enjoyed, and was playing up to four hours a night. While his parents set time limits and checked in regularly, with the kids upstairs in their rooms doing homework for long stretches and then going to bed, it wasn’t unusual to check in and find George playing after his allotted time was up.

George says the program helped him realise his playing wasn’t being optimised - often leaving him frustrated - and that cutting back could make it more fun. He also actively explored what other activities he wanted to make enough time for and worked out strategies to help him keep a watch on how long he was playing for. Andrew reveals it's now been several months since George completed the program, and his new normal has fulfilment and balance.

Gaming addresses certain basic psychological needs - sometimes when parents and life are not

Andrew says the key to helping kids successfully self-regulate their gaming behaviour is understanding how gaming fulfils key needs for children, and that excessive gaming may be indicative of what they are lacking. That's a breach parents can help them fill with far less conflict than an authoritative ‘get off the game because I said so,’ approach.

“It’s also worth noting that the people who are at risk of a gaming disorder are generally dealing with an underlying mental health condition, and the gaming has become their coping mechanism,” says Andrew.

We need three things to flourish in life; competence, autonomy and relatedness. Today’s modern world of parenting alongside long working hours and an influx of fear-inducing news stories often leads to less socialising with mates and more time alone at home (not to mention they spend most of the day at school toeing the line.) Meanwhile, the decision making, skills development and social elements of online gaming give them a dose of what they want.

So what should parents do?

 Andrew says doesn’t mean throwing your hands in the air and giving into the Cult of the Keyboard at all. Instead, he recommends looking at how these needs are being met and offering alternatives.

“Try things like playing their games with them," he advises. "As well as having them tutor you, spend time as a spectator. This goes further than fostering connectedness, it also gives you insight into what they enjoy about it, and makes you an ally rather than an authoritative enemy,” says Kinch.

The process of working with rather than against them when it comes to finding strategies to monitor use and re-prioritise computer game time in their schedules is an important chance for them to build key life skills reminds Andrew. As adults, they are going to have to learn how to self-regulate their behaviours in many areas of life, and supporting them as they do it with gaming gives them the confidence and autonomy they need to develop – and later use – them.

Inspired to give it a go? While Andrew runs face to face sessions in Melbourne, you can also find more advice, resources, informative videos and access to his six-week online program at gameaware.com.au.

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