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Is a game ruining your family's life? Don't blame your child or yourself

May 14, 2021

Gaming, parent yelling

It’s understandable that we put the blame on ourselves - or on our kids. But the truth is, it’s not us.

How familiar does this scenario sound?

It’s dinnertime, and your 14-year-old has his head in the game. Maybe that game is Fortnight. Maybe it's Minecraft or Among Us or League of Legends or any of dozens of others.  

You call him to the table. He grunts a reply that you optimistically interpret as “I’m coming.”

Minutes pass. More summons by you. More grunts from him. The situation escalates when you start yelling - and he starts yelling back. 

Soon, there are tears. Yours - maybe his too. Something gets thrown or broken. Both of you say things that, in a calmer moment, you’ll regret.

Exactly what is going on here? How did it happen that a game - a dumb game! - is ruining your family’s life? 

You’re not proud of the way you reacted. But the truth is, you’re also ashamed of your child. Who has he become? And where have you gone wrong as a parent, that he’s so vulnerable to pull off the screen?

It’s understandable that we put the blame on ourselves - or on our kids. But the truth is, it’s not us. 

What’s really pulling the strings here are features that are built into the technology itself - features that exert an imperative to keep on engaging, no matter what.

So argues Adam Alter, author of a new book exploring the psychological hooks that let tech companies reel our kids in by the millions.

A professor of marketing and psychology, Alter is an expert in the dark arts and sciences of manipulation.

And in Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked he lays out the top five techniques companies use to cultivate compulsive, problematic use.

Variable feedback. Think of this one as the slot machine effect. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. It’s the uncertainty - and the hope that “this could be the big one” - that keeps them coming back for more.

Portability. Frankly, phones have changed everything when it comes to addictive online behavior.  Studies show 70% of us constantly have our phones in reach at all times. Among teens, you can raise that figure even higher. When your game is always in your back pocket, it’s never out of sight or out of mind. 

Lack of stopping cues. Some of us are old enough to remember a world before bingeing was a thing. You watched your favorite show and needed to wait a whole week for the next episode. But in today’s online world, the fun literally never ends. There is always more - and more and more and more. 

Artificial goals. Human beings are notoriously goal-oriented. Our survival as a species has depended on that. Tech companies exploit that inbuilt pull by manufacturing goals that keep us engaged: 10,000 steps, say, or Snapstreaks, or collecting virtual items in a quest. 

Cliff-hangers. It’s the oldest narrative trick in the book. Leave ‘em in suspense, and they’ll be hooked - and panting for more. Our deep drive to know what happens next is a key feature of both popular games and social media platforms.

When you consider how the deck is stacked, the real mystery is not why kids have trouble turning off their games.

It’s why they ever come to the dinner table at all.

Did you know gaming can have positive effects on you and your child?

Check out our last blog on how gaming can reduce stress.

Check it out!

Topics: Screen Time, Parenting, Gaming

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