As I'm writing this, Brandon Crisp is still missing.
It's a terrible and heart wrenching thing, a missing teen, and this particular runaway has the sensational "video game addict" angle. I'm sure perceived culpability is a big reason why Microsoft is offering up half of a hefty $50,000 reward for information leading to Brandon's whereabouts. Microsoft is also cooperating with Barrie police to release his usage records, which is incredibly unusual. The company is clearly concerned that fingers are being pointed at them for being partially responsible for the kid's disappearance.
But in all this noise, I think we're failing to effectively address this issue of video game "addiction". And more parents learning what it is, and how to combat it, is a potential positive that could come out of this tragic story. I really really feel for Brandon's parents, and wouldn't dream of judging them as people, or criticizing their motivations. But in the interests of preventing this sort of thing from happening again, I think it's important to discuss the fact that they got a great deal wrong in dealing with a depressive teen who was expressing symptoms through a video game.
They made huge mistakes in their approach to Brandon's problem by making their entire approach punitive - ie: taking away the game, then taking away the console. Setting limits on behavior is an important thing for parents to do under most circumstances, especially in early development, but things get trickier in the teen years. This stuff isn't a kid being bratty. This is a deeper and more tragic expression of something.
I personally have an issue with the term "video game addiction". Labeling something an ‘addiction' without a chemical dependency is a tricky thing. For drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and the like, there is a definitive alteration of body chemistry that creates a physical addiction. The mental and emotional need for something, whether it's chemicals or an activity like gambling or gaming, or even eating disorders is a different thing entirely. The two things are interwoven, and a mental compulsion is, in many ways, more difficult to break than a physical addiction that will gradually fade with time off the substance. However, I think there are better corollaries regarding excessive gaming than this classic substance addiction model. I think compulsive gaming more precisely mirrors the cycle of eating disorders.
Now, mea culpa, I developed an eating disorder as a teen. I struggled with depression. I'm also an avid gamer. Because of this confluence of circumstances, I'm in a unique position to compare the compulsions, and their origins.
When I was a kid, I used video games as a way of hiding from my dad, of whom I was terrified. My parents split when I was twelve, and dad tried to be the ‘cool' parent by letting us do things my mother wouldn't. That included staying up all night playing video games. I learned pretty quickly that gaming through the night and sleeping during the day minimized the number of hours spent in my father's presence.
Even before my parents split up, there was a lot of fighting in the house, so I used video games to escape the arguing. I played A LOT. Between the ages of 9 and 17, my mother was constantly yelling at me to turn the things off. There were fights. I'd sneak downstairs while she was asleep to game. Super Mario 3 was the biggest coping title.
The development of my eating disorder ran parallel to my compulsive gaming. The anorexia was worst between the ages of 13 and 15. In the eighth grade I passed out in a basketball practice, and my family doctor recognized there was a problem. Even then, it took me years to stop systematically starving myself. The way my mother yelled at me for not eating my lunch was a lot like the way she yelled at me about the games. Perhaps the whole thing had an element of rebellion to it, since I was an otherwise good kid who didn't get into any trouble. I know there was a huge discipline component to it: I took the duty of leveling up as seriously as the duty of cutting calories: the self-denial in pursuit of a tangible goal had a geeky romance to it.
The starvation and obsessive gaming were desperate attempts to gain some control over my life. They were a way to find validation that was in short supply at home, despite my straight A student status. Being preternaturally good at a game, becoming as skinny as possible, these both revolved around the need to be defined by something quantitative instead of subjective. Numbers on a scale and numbers in a high score represented the same thing: a teenage girl's weight is status - so is a gamerscore.
Interestingly, my school grades never dipped because those, too, were numbers. Numbers, to me, were a beacon of fairness in an unfair world. My compulsive, self-destructive behaviors had become a huge part of the core of my self-image: the rewards they promised didn't involve the unreliable approval of another person.
By this point, it should be clear why taking away the Xbox completely useless as a technique to combat a teen's unhealthy attachment to video games. Confiscating a console from a miserable kid who's using it as a coping mechanism leaves you with a miserable kid with NO means to cope.
Eventually I got counseling for the root causes of my self-destructive behavior, and I began to learn to moderate my gaming. I did it using techniques borrowed from my eating disorder recovery.
A strong positive reward system, both social and tangible, is vital to recovery. It builds a teen up in tandem with chipping gradually away at the compulsive behavior. Today, I still feel the same tug of anguish at not being a size 0 as I do for not having a gamerscore of 10,000. The extremism that defined me has to be battled on a daily basis, and there are no tangible rewards inherent to the process. Society rewards neither a gamer of average skill, nor a woman of average weight.
That's why the rewards have to be provided externally. The rewards for positive behavior have to be as real as the rewards for self-destructive behavior. And the reasons for continuing the positive behavior have to be constantly reinforced.
Applying this to compulsive gaming means rewarding in-person social interaction. When a teen spends time with the family or does something in person with friends, for instance. This reward can take the form of a non-gaming item the teen wants, an activity in which they've expressed interest - making their favorite food, or letting them dye their hair, are some examples. This gradually weakens the belief in the gamer's head that games are the only things that make them happy.
Anger and disapproval have to be moderated, because these negative responses make traditional social interaction a punitive experience. The goal is for the teen to want to put the game away, not to yank it out of his or her hands.
This is not an instant cure. Those of us with obsessive, compulsive or addictive personalities face a lifelong struggle, but feeling like a burden or an embarrassment is anathema. There are no shortcuts, and no easy answers, but the wisdom that you obtain by battling through it is invaluable. It's a difficult thing for parents, because so many outsiders look down their nose at well-intentioned parenting. But these techniques work when applied, and it means that parents and teens fight the problem instead of fighting each other.
Because you guys aren't alone. There are thousands of us out there. And I hope the one that got us all talking about this turns up safe.