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Living in a Virtual World: Teenage Problematic Gaming

a teen dealing with problematic gaming sits at a desk gaming on a computer

From Frogger to Fortnite, games have leveled up significantly since they first started capturing the attention of young people. In June 2018, the World Health Organization declared gaming, including video and internet gaming, a mental health condition.1 Whether it’s too much time spent indoors, not enough time spent on homework or chores, or what looks like mindless staring at a screen, many parents can’t accept their child’s problematic gaming.

Uncontrolled gaming, however, may not be the underlying problem. Sometimes, teens turn to video games as an escape from challenging emotions. At Family First, we help parents and teen boys aged 13-18 explore their feelings and behaviors in our adolescent gaming addiction treatment program. Call 888.904.5947 to learn more.

What Is Problematic Gaming in Teens?

Video games and gaming aren’t inherently problematic. What can be problematic is your child’s relationship to and experience of gaming— specifically if it gives them something they aren’t getting from their school life, social life, or home life. A child who stays up late a few nights in a row doesn’t necessarily have an issue with problematic gaming.

Gaming is considered problematic or disordered if a child isn’t able to control the amount of time they spend on video games. Some signs they may have a gaming addiction include:

  • Putting gaming before responsibilities at home
  • Missing homework, team sports or hobbies,
  • Canceling time with their friends
  • Disrupting eating and sleeping
  • Continuing to play video games or play them more despite the loss of friendships, poor grades, fighting with their parents, and suffering health

You should avoid jumping to a conclusion about your child’s gaming habits and what they signify. Not all children who immerse themselves in video games are struggling with their mental health, and not all children who are struggling with mental health will use video games to cope. These signs, though, can help you identify if they’re using gaming to cope with their mental health.

Gaming Offers an Escape

Recent studies have demonstrated gaming is a coping mechanism some children use to escape deeply painful feelings or challenges. Virtual worlds can be used as a source of enjoyment and relaxation and can become a refuge from insecurities, difficulties, traumatic experiences, and negative feelings.

Understanding Dissociation

The thousand-yard stare, when your son is there in body but his mind is far away, is more than a mental process. It’s a physiological process, too. When you see your son zoning out, they’re cutting themselves off from their emotional experience or even completely leaving their body during an overwhelming event. This process is called dissociation.

Why Dissociation Starts

Research shows there’s a strong correlation between children who rely on dissociation as a coping mechanism and problematic gaming. Dissociation begins as an unconscious means of self-protection early in life. Children dissociate to shield themselves from overwhelming feelings of threat and helplessness, and this becomes ingrained as a primary coping mechanism as they get older. As children learn how effective dissociation can be for dealing with stress, fear, and conflict, it’s a tactic they return to more frequently.

The Effects of Dissociation

Children who dissociate are disconnected from their feelings and not able to build deep and meaningful relationships with other people or to experience intimacy or vulnerability. In fact, it can become a child’s defining approach when moving toward connection. When children dissociate, beginning in the earliest stages of their development, this process of disconnecting from themselves and others goes to the root of their personality.

Children and adolescents who dissociate want very badly to connect with others but feel completely overwhelmed by the prospect of connecting.

A Compassionate View Teen Problematic Gaming

The virtual world that was once an escape from pain or a harmful environment can keep teens rooted in loneliness and isolation. The fear of connection and resulting dissociation becomes their primary source of pain—and the barrier to them getting what they want out of life.

Many teens describe feeling a true sense of belonging for the first time in their lives in the virtual world of video games. They experience:

  • Euphoria
  • Relaxation
  • Identity recreation
  • Self-respect
  • Strength
  • Creativity
  • Assertiveness
  • Self-worth
  • Purpose

With rankings, scores, and statistics all compiled in real-time, they have a sense of pride in being able to measure themselves in a context where they feel some agency.

Parents hope their children find purpose in academic performance and life aspirations; these teens find purpose in building a virtual identity that resides in this virtual world. In the world of video games, connecting with themselves—via the persona they create—and with others comes without the fear and threat of the real world. Here, they are not lonely or alone. They can achieve their goals and objectives, and they can be part of a team or even a leader on that team.

Starting the Conversation with Your Son

If you’re concerned that your child’s immersion in video games might hurt his social or academic life, it’s a good idea to begin an open dialogue with him to see what he believes he is getting out of it. They may not be aware of any negative consequences they might be experiencing from gaming.

  • Just a hobby – The result of an open and non-threatening conversation with your child could reveal that, in terms of his mental health, everything is okay. Your child might show you that his social group plays the same game together, but at their own houses on their own consoles or computers, and that they’re talking and connected to each other the whole time. In this case, your child might simply need some clearer boundaries from you about how much time is enough and that video games should only come after homework and chores are completed.
  • Gaming issues – On the other hand, if you’re noticing significant changes in weight, if your child is pulled back completely from their social or academic life, or if they are lashing out at home—especially in the context of gaming—it’s time to find help.

The world keeps changing, and new technologies are shedding light on the future. But when it comes to communicating with your children, it’s best to go back to the basics of genuine curiosity, acceptance, support, and validation.

Find Help for Your Son by Reaching Out to Family First Adolescent Services

Family First helps the whole family find lasting and meaningful healing from the most common and complex issues affecting teens, including problematic gaming. We keep parents in the loop every step of the way, with at least three weekly calls home to talk about how your child is doing with his therapy, his schoolwork, and how to focus on healing your relationship with your child.

Call 888.904.5947 or complete our online form to get the help your son and family need today.


  1. World Health Organization – Addictive behaviours: Gaming disorder