The high cost of video games

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Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Stephen Moore described (subscription required) his teenage sons "classic withdrawal symptoms" when limited in their video game use. He rejected his 6-year-old son's pleas for a PlayStation.

That's learning.

No one was prepared when the video game surge took over childhood. If American children could no longer play in the woods or in the neighborhood, they could be found exercising their fingers at the video game. By high school weekends, it could go on all night. Worst of all for our family was the online game Everquest -- referred to by those in the know as Evercrack. Designed to be highly addictive - players "level up" -- it was the first irrefutable indicator that our older son was carrying some addictive genes. In the backyard bunkhouse, he and his friends could be found any hour of the night, computers plugged in, an empty box of Krispy Kremes beside them. More than once, we found him asleep at the computer. "What's the worst thing I ever did, Mom?" he once asked "Stay online all night?"

True. He wasn't running wild. He was home, or at least in the backyard. As long as you left him alone, all was peaceful even if his eyes were red with fatigue, his skin pale from lack of sunlight and he hadn't seen his girlfriend in a week. Dare to turn anything off -- after half a dozen requests -- and his gentle personality morphed into someone else's son.

I'm an LICSW, a child and adolescent psychotherapist. The summer our son was sixteen, things got so bad that I called the addiction program at McLean Hospital. Men watch pornography, women shop, kids play video games. Some kids can work video games into their lives, others can't balance the combination. The teenager who stamps around and blows off steam may be less at risk than the nice one who's inclined to stuff his feelings. Plug in the game and he can literally tune everything out. It's also kids who've had too much loss, and who -- for whatever reasons -- aren't much engaged in other activities who may be more likely to fall into video game anesthesia.

Moore's six-year old son thinks he has the meanest parents in the world. It would be much easier for them to give in. After all, a kid at a video game is a quiet kid. There should be few things that most parents have to "go to the mat" about. As a friend once told me when her daughter was two, "I'm a hard-liner about brushing teeth." Be a hard-liner about acquiring new video systems and games.

The video game challenge is a chance for us to teach our children how to manage time and impulses. Most of us would prefer to spend too much time -- watching football, reading (my husband liked to say that I saw all of life as an intrusion between me, my bed and my book...) or eating a bag of chips. None of us can afford to. Successful people learn to balance their time and impulses. If I had it to do over, if we hadn't been caught off-guard, we'd have helped our son learn that lesson through video games. But not too soon.

Early childhood is not the time for these games. As with any addictive activity, the more developed the brain the better the chance. Long term, kids who start drinking at 12 and 13 are at higher risk than those who start in college. Try to slow this down. One way to do this is to jump on the middle or end of the trend rather than the beginning. True, your child won't be the first one in the neighborhood to have the new game, he may even be the last. If you do that, you can save considerable sums of money.

Don't buy video systems and games new! Wait for the new expensive edition to show up at the mall --- then buy last year's -- or even the previous year's -- model on the secondary market , with twice as many games for 20% or 30% of what you'd pay new. Take half of the money you saved and let your child try some new activity -- whether it's music, dance, a sport, a new hobby or collection. Alternatively, teach your child about investing. Let him own some stock.

Be mean.

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