How Video Gaming Can Sabotage Sports
By Melanie Hempe, BSN, Founder of ScreenStrong
Why is it so easy for a boy to get sucked into gaming and it is so hard for him to stick to a real sport?
One answer: video gaming is easy and sports are difficult.
In other words, kids like digital candy and the quick shot of a sugar-rush. But the nutritional impact of real sports offer long-term payoffs that gaming can’t touch.
These facts are based in science. Gaming is designed to quickly trigger our kids’ reward pathway and keep it stimulated.1 The addictive elements in a video games are carefully constructed by scientists.2
This powerful initial draw isn’t present the same way in real-life sports (especially if your son is used to gaming). It takes time and perseverance to build a love of a team sport. Your son will have to work harder in sports, something that isn’t natural during adolescence and isn’t required much in a video game.
(For the purpose of this article, I will use the male pronoun and focus on boys and video games. However, most of this material can be applied to girls and social media, too.)
How Video Games Derail Sports
Here are some ways that video games can quickly derail the importance of sports in a young boy’s life:
- Instant talent. Video games are designed to make your son feel good: instantly, and it is easy to confuse this emotion with feeling talented. But it takes much longer to feel accomplished in sports.The “get rich quick” gambling-like promise of a virtual game is nearly impossible to resist. Your son compares the fact that he is instantly skilled at the video game and not so great at the sport, which becomes an easy excuse to drop. There is no such thing as instant grits when it comes to talent in real sports. It may not seem like it to a bystander, but proficiency in sports takes a lot of determination behind the scenes, determination, and more practice than you might imagine. There is nothing instant about building talent in sports. Video games are designed by behavioral scientists to keep the players hooked.3 The only thing that keeps your son hooked on sports initially is, well, you. You open up the door for interests, you drive him to practice, you encourage him, you provide the structure and you don’t let him quit when it gets hard.
- Intermittent rewards and instant gratification create addiction. Gaming is designed to give intermittent rewards and instant gratification.4,5 This is another aspect not found in sports, where skills take a long time to build and gratification can be delayed for months, even years. This is difficult for a young brain that craves instant success and low effort activities.
- Low effort, high reward. The young brain craves the path of least resistance, and the teen brain especially desires low-effort activities. Discipline, delayed gratification, and self-control are all found in a mature frontal cortex. Science tells us that, in a teen, this part of the brain is growing but will not be fully connected till his mid twenties.6 Video games provide an extremely powerful reward for very low effort, a destructive combo for a young boy. This distraction can quickly kill his interests in sports.
- Time. The amount of time eaten up by gaming leaves less time for practicing his sport. When a young boy is in the “flow” of the game, time is practically non-existent. It’s a pretty simple equation: when he spends more time in his video game he is reducing the chance of reaching his greatest potential in his sport. If he doesn’t practice his sport, he will not see improvement and will not want to play.
- False confidence. Video games give boys the false sense that they are “doing” something, building something or being productive. But it is an illusion. Your son may think that he is actually excelling at sports themed video games, but those skills will never transfer to real life on the real ball field. Scientifically speaking, watching and doing are two different things in the brain, but to a young boy it is tempting to miss that truth.
- A low bar. Deep down every boy knows that video games are not real world accomplishments, and they know that they are a massive waste of time. But they are caught in a trap. Deep down, a young boy also feels the underlining low expectation from parents when they allow him to play as long as he wants. This low bar supports his game-overuse habit and artificially inflates the importance of the virtual game. The repeating message in his brain is: can’t do any real physical sport better than this. I want to be good at something. So I will get good at my video game. This is all my parents think I am capable of.
- Lack of purpose. Perhaps the single-most significant problem with gaming is the lack of purpose that can easily lead to depression. Competing in and completing a sports season is a healthy way for a teen to work toward a goal and to find purpose on a team. Video games have teams you say? Yes, they have virtual teams. The virtual team is very different than a face-to-face team. It’s not all bad, it is just different. Plus, gaming is very addictive and can lead to other addictions. Achieving accomplishments in sports provides a foundation that will build strong brain pathways for future choices when he is faced with decisions around how to spend his time. It is wonderful practice for real life. There is not much purpose to spending five hours a day on a video game, especially during the short window of time of a child’s development when he is forming crucial lifelong habits. Nothing is accomplished in the real world when you spend that much time in the virtual world. My oldest son (who became addicted to video games) says he wishes he had all of his gaming hours back. It is difficult for him to look back and come to grips with all the wasted time during those childhood years.
I know what you may be thinking. Maybe your son isn’t an athlete. Or you or your spouse don’t particularly care for sports. I had those same thoughts too about my oldest son. I remember thinking that not every boy is into sports. And I didn’t yet know that every child is an athlete. Can he learn teamwork in a drama program or another other activity. Yes. However his need for physical exercise will still need to be achieved and that is generally easier in a sport. Medical science supports the need for physical activity and teamwork in the developing years.
But what about…?
But I know you may still have a few questions, such as:
What about esports? Can my son become rich and famous, or pay for his college one day?
The chances of your son being successful at esports is very low, but the cost of trying is very high: the price is childhood.7 If your child’s video game was an investment (which it is), it is a bad investment. The amount of time he will need to spend on his screen is over eight hours every day to become proficient for the pro-level gamer or to even consider being a YouTube success. At that level of play, your son is replacing healthy activities like quality face time with friends and family, chores, homework, and not to mention physical activity and sports. He may even be replacing college, as is very common for pro-players to drop-out of college.7
Esports also raises long-term physical and mental health concerns. The physically inactive environment is especially detrimental to teens during the adolescent years and can lead to depression. Real sports can lead to success without the dangers of social isolation, physical inactivity and the replacement of other activities. Can your son stay balanced and be a pro-gamer? It is possible but not very likely.
Do the research. There are 200 million registered players on Fortnite. Your child has a better chance of winning the lottery than building a Fortnite following that will sustain an income. And what happens when Fortnite isn’t the popular game any longer? Many students dropout of college to pursue a gaming career that never comes to fruition. Make sure your son is balanced with other hobbies and interests in order to build a well-rounded future. While many parents get starry eyed thinking about the fame, resist the urge to follow his drive to be a celebrity gamer. As the adult, you must use your head and guide your teen.
What if he wants to quit his sport?
Think hard about letting him drop out. Part of the benefit is sticking out something when you don’t want to do it. This builds grit. Angela Duckworth, author of “Grit,”8 explains that every child should have one stretch activity. Remember, it is also never too late to start a sport. Kids will want to quit things when the going gets tough; they need parents to help them through the valleys.
What if team sports are not an option for your family?
If structured sports simply won’t work for your family due to travel, finances or other circumstances, don’t fret. Your child can run, do calisthenics at home, ride bikes, swim, work out at a gym or even play basketball in the driveway. While the team aspect may be missing, the physical benefits will be superior to sitting on the couch. Theater and band also make wonderful activities for teens and have some benefits similar to a team sport. Just be sure to add in movement and exercise on a regular basis.
What if he gets cut from the school team?
Getting cut from the school team in middle school or high school has sent many young boys head first into a video game addiction. I have seen this pathway too many times. He has his heart set on the school team, he doesn’t make it, he gets angry and depressed, he starts gaming. He knows he can be a big star in the video game even if he has to use his mom’s money to buy new game currency to level up. Mom feel sorry for her son and gives in and the cycle begins.
While we know that the school team is convenient, sometimes it is not an option. Club and community sports teams are a viable alternative. Due to the way the numbers stack up, most kids will not make the school team. But no worries! There is a team out there for your child. A resourceful parent can find many options. From the YMCA to church leagues to community ball fields and youth organizations, it is not difficult to find a team for your child. The added benefit of a club team (away from school) is the interaction with a new friend group. Remember that middle school is the time when many kids quit their sports. So be prepared and be proactive; have other options in the wings. Plan to use the back-up plan and don’t get upset if your son gets cut from his school team.
Get him back on track.
Here are some tips to help your son get interested in sports again. But first, you will have to put away the video games as they will distract him from rekindling his love of the real game.
- Sign him up. Don’t expect your gamer to make the suggestion, tell you about sports deadlines at school or act too interested. Be the parent and take charge and get him on a team. The younger he is the more you can use your warm but firm parenting skills to get him going. If he is older let him help with that decision. Make sure the choice is agreeable to your family schedule but know that all commitments take time. And it is worth the hard work!
- Grab a friend. Your son will be more motivated if a friends joins him in his new sport. Plus with busy schedules and both parents working, it is very helpful to partner with another family when choosing a sport. Carpooling for practices can be a lifesaver and it has the added benefit of more face-time with friends in the car back and forth. Just make a no-device rule in the car!
- Inspire him. Gather some non-fiction biographies and autobiographies of athletes who have changed the game…or the world. Get two copies from the library and read them together and talk about it. Subscribe to a kids sports magazines. Be interested in sports.
- Collect something. Start a sports card collection hobby, collect autographs when you go to sporting events or get them a nice camera and learn how to photograph sporting events.
- Connect with others. Meet other adults in your life who have sports experiences. Ask around and meet college athletes in your friend’s circles. Following a college athlete is very inspiring for a young boy or girl.
- Make experiences a family affair. Watch sports together by going to high school sporting events, college games in your area or major league games. Watch 30 – 30’s, sports documentaries, or motivational sports movies together; keep a list your favorites handy! (“Miracle,” “Chariots of Fire,” “Rudy,” “Hoosiers,” “The Natural,” and “Remember the Titans” just to name a few! )
Put away those video games. Gather up your kids right now and pick up a ball. Head over to the local fields or courts, and leave the iPad at home and your phone in the car while you enjoy some time with your gamer. Using sports to redefine screen time will be the beginning of a winning season for the rest of their lives.
Want to know more about the benefits of sports? Read our post “Why Every Boy (even your gamer) is an Athlete.”
- Victoria L. Dunckley, MD. Reset Your Child’s Brain: a Four-Week Plan To End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time. (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2015), 41.
- Andrew P. Doan, MD. Hooked on Games: The Lure and Cost of Video Games and Internet Addiction. (Coralville, IA: F.E.P. International, Inc., 2012), 105.
- Frances E. Jensen, MD, with Amy Ellis Nutt. The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults. (New York: Collins, 2016).
- Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. New York, NY: Scribner, 2018.
Melanie Hempe, BSN, is the founder and executive director of ScreenStrong, a national nonprofit organization that offers a countercultural approach to eliminate childhood screen dependency, but one that just might save your kids. Melanie has developed cutting-edge programs that empower parents to pause video games and social media for kids and teens through late adolescence. Her three books can be found on Amazon: Will Your Gamer Survive College?, Can Your Teen Survive—and Thrive—Without a Smartphone? and The ScreenStrong Solution: How to free your child from addictive screen habits.
ScreenStrong is committed to rescuing this screen-driven generation, one family at a time.
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