According to statistics reached by Russian researchers, 10–14 percent of all computer gamers are in some state of psychological dependence. American statistics confirm the same—one out of every ten teenagers could be called a game addict.
Roma is seventeen. This year he will finish high school and go to college. He tries very hard to answer my questions as truthfully as possible. "How much time do you spend on computer games?" "A lot. About five hours a day! I may even have some sort of dependence," he declares, self-critically.
In fact, the amount of time spent at computer games is not an indicator of dependence. There is a whole list of symptoms. "Parents should sound the alarm when such physical functions are disrupted as sleep; when a child stays up all night before his screen, but sleeps all day; when he starts eating badly," says psychiatrist Dr. Igor Oleinik. "When serious problems arise with studies, all energy goes into games, and yesterday's friends are forgotten."
"During summer vacation, I was at home alone and left to my own devices," Roma confirms the doctor's words. "Sometimes I would feel too lazy to get out of bed and heat up my lunch. Night would come around and I would go and grab a bite to eat." "And how did you parents view all this?" "Well, they would tell me to turn off the computer at a certain time. Grandmother, for example, would come at eleven at night and stand over me until I finished."
That is also how Natalia, the mother of fourteen-year-old Anton would act. "Recently my son has started playing very much. I understand that the modern child needs a computer, but it interferes with normal studies. Anton has even begun to shirk his favorite pastime of swimming. I had to declare war on the computer. Now he can only touch it after finishing all his homework, and only until nine in the evening."
True, Natalia confesses, "This tactic does not work very well. Anton starts bargaining for every extra minute, and as soon as he is left by himself, he forgets everything and sits down to "have a shot."
"That's right!" remarks Igumen Sergei (Rybko), who works continually with teenagers. "First of all—forbidden fruit is sweet. Second, a system of prohibitions works when people live alone in the woods. But if they live in an apartment complex, the child will just go to his friends' when his parents take his computer away, and do the same thing there. Parents naively suppose that if they have forbidden something at home, it is forbidden completely. But there is the street, friends, or school. The older a child becomes, the more outward influences increase, and the parents' influence decreases. Then, a system of prohibitions leads to domestic discord. You can forbid until age five, but after that you have to sit down next to him and explain." The roots of game addiction should be sought in the same place as many other teenage problems: in insecurity, family conflicts, and lack of attention from parents.
"Your son started experiencing emotional complexes, which he satisfies through 'heavy metal' and computer games. It is as if he is taking revenge for his childhood against some unknown person," Archimandrite Raphael (Karelin) replies to a letter from a woman who suddenly recognized that in childhood her boy "was lonely and abandoned".
Thus, the young man is hiding in a virtual world where events can be put on pause, or begun all over again. Will this help him? To the contrary—just a little further and it can all get much worse. Fr. Sergei (Rybko) is quite categorical, if not harsh: "A child's environment bears responsibility for his behavior, and this most often means his parents. If out of their desire to be free of the child and to avoid giving their time to him they give him instead a pacifier in the form of these games, he will develop very primitive character traits. He will grow into a type of moron."
Computer games did not influence Roma's intellect, but you can't help noticing an emotional coldness, if not indifference. By the way, the situation Fr. Sergei describes seems to be taken from Roma's life. Roma's parents were divorced when he was little, and a computer entered his home seven years ago—just when his mother, tired of being single, decided to set her personal life in order. She never did remarry, but for all the outward family happiness, she lost any true, deep contact with her son; and who knows if it will return.
I ask Natalia how often she simply talks with Anton; does she know about his school life. "We aren't strangers, we talk sometimes. But it has been a long time since we've talked heart to heart—all my energy goes to the younger ones (there are three more children in the family). He doesn't talk much about school—he considers himself an adult, who should solve his own problems. But we always check his homework and journal." Psychologists distinguish yet another cause of game addiction: the affected children experience serious problems in associating with people, and they have low self-esteem. To put it simply, they suffer from loneliness.
Furthermore, there is no sense in pretending that this problem has no spiritual component—in playing with "monsters", children enter into contact with the demonic world. In order to test whether or not this is true, just look at the monitor where your red-faced, disheveled son has been staring for three hours now, whipping up his emotions with a can of "Red Bull" and periodically saying something in a mechanical voice into the skype headset.
"By emotionally experiencing murders, he subconsciously participates in them; by communicating with virtual monsters, he opens his soul to real demonic powers," writes Fr. Raphael (Karelin).
Psychiatry describes in its own terms the demonic influence of computer games. "Game addiction can develop in people who essentially tend towards extreme behavior. If the game addiction is not treated, this person's future holds reckless driving, immoral sexual conduct—everything that we call deviant behavior," says Dr. Igor Oleinik.
Life has proven these words: When Roma was in the eleventh grade, he was not ashamed to tell his dumfounded mother one day that while she was at the dacha, a girl spent the night with him in the apartment. It sounded shameless, but it also sounds like of a cry for help—within such teenage declarations a subconscious "SOS" is often being sent. A seeking of parental attention, thirst for love, protest, loneliness—this is bottom line of what we will find in the corner of a dark room, where a computer screen flickers for several hours while the parents are busy with their work, or rest after work, or housework—but in fact, their egoism.
"But what can be done?" you ask. As always, we have to begin with ourselves. If the matter has gone too far, go for consultation to an Orthodox psychiatrist [if one can be found—if not, find a good psychiatrist who is sympathetic to your religious beliefs. —OC]. But in any case, as Fr. Sergei says, "Offer him something of equal value as a replacement, and act patiently and very slowly."