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HEALTH

Can teens learn coping skills from playing video games? This therapist thinks so

Wendy Ruderman
Philadelphia Inquirer

Philadelphia — About 85% of U.S. teens report playing video games, and about four in 10 do so daily, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center.

The survey of 1,423 teens, ages 13 to 17, revealed they experience both positive and negative sides of video games — from making friends and socializing to bullying and sleep loss.

The survey of 1,423 teens, ages 13 to 17, revealed they experience both positive and negative sides of video games from making friends and socializing to bullying and sleep loss.

Drew Lightfoot is a licensed therapist at Thriveworks, a mental health company with clinics in Philadelphia and its suburbs. He's also an avid gamer who works with adolescents and young adults who identify as "gamers."

Lightfoot spoke to The Inquirer about the pros and cons of gaming, when parents should be concerned, and how the strategies he teaches his clients are similar to those used in video games. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What's an example of gaming strategy that can teach teens coping skills?

When you go through life, there are going to be stressful things that happen to you that can sometimes be overwhelming. Part of living a thriving life is to develop skills to handle those very stressful situations. A good example is a video game called "Dark Souls," which is a very difficult game to beat. In that game, you will go through stages and you will fight bosses, but at the end of every boss fight or through your travels, there are also pre-designated rest areas, where you are supposed to rest and recoup.

So with that mindset, I work with my clients to identify, 'Hey, what are the challenges in your life? What are the bosses in your life? What are the strategies that we can come up with to defeat those challenges, and then what reward or rest are you going to provide for yourself afterward?' Because just like in video games and in "Dark Souls," we need to rest in real life.

We hear a lot of negatives about teen gaming. What are the positives?

Nowadays, whether it's on a gaming console or personal computer, you're almost always online. So you're always playing with other people. Community building can happen online. So I think for a lot of people, especially for maybe more introverted individuals, it's a safer space where they can engage in something that they enjoy doing, but it also opens the door to meet other people. I think building those relationships in those communities can be really helpful for adolescents.

What are some negatives or red flags for parents and teen gamers?

Gaming provides dopamine hits. It provides excitement and anything like that, we can do too much of. I hesitate to move into discussing video game addiction. I feel like that is probably overused. There's way fewer people who are addicted to video games than maybe parents are thinking.

One of the other negatives is the toxicity or the bullying that can happen online. When you play with other people behind anonymous screen names and a voice chat, it allows them to say whatever they want. Be mindful of the type of individuals who you come across online and recognize when the bullying or the taunting may be getting to you. It might be time to take a break or get out of the game.

What are signs of video game addiction?

It's not an official diagnoses. It is a relatively new term that came out from the World Health Organization. A lot of the symptoms are similar to alcoholism or drug addition. When we would diagnose addiction, this behavior would be causing a problem in the home, in school, or with friends. It would be where we are not eating, not showering, not taking care of ourselves.

How can teens develop a healthy relationship with gaming?

The conversation I have with parents or families or teens is setting up more of a structure where we say, 'These are the items that you need to complete today. When these items are complete, you have your free time to play video games.' I think that's how 'normal life' works for adults, so it's a good way to train and develop that skill for adolescents.

What about healthy sleep habits for teen gamers?

Screen time affects sleep. If someone is really struggling to sleep and stating that they think that video games might be one of the reasons, then we would recommend taking the game time away when you're getting ready to sleep. So set an alarm or setting a timer that says, 'Hey, I'm not going to play video games an hour or two hours before I go to sleep.'

How can parents better talk to their teen about gaming?

If someone is playing a lot of video games, the first thing I think is that they are trying to cope with something or escape from something. So let's have a conversation and look at what they are using video games to cope with. I also encourage parents to ask their kids what video games they're playing, because depending on the video game, they might be learning skills that the parent might not even be aware of.