Will Your Gamer Survive College?

By Melanie Hempe, RN

Note: Originally published on July 22, 2016 by Families Managing Media.

I recently returned from my daughter’s college orientation at a large state university: one-and-a-half days packed full of tips and overviews on how to help your student be successful in college, from what food plan may be best to what size sheets to buy. I chuckled when the student volunteers took the stage to offer their “wise advice” on how parents should adjust to their student’s newfound independence by not interfering with their freedom. According to them, our students should say, “Mom and Dad, be there to pay the bills, but honestly, I am an adult now. (My 18th birthday was last month, remember?) You need to let me have my privacy, my independence, and my beer.” Well, while they may look like adults, this seasoned mom of four now knows that these “apprentice adults” will not have fully functioning frontal cortexes until they are, ironically, out of college. Will this scientific fact affect their college experience? Yes, it will. This is a lesson I learned with my oldest child.

Later that day, as I listened to the lecture from the counseling department, my eyes quickly scanned the slide on Academic Impediments. Did the reason my son fail to thrive in his first year of college six years ago make the list yet? Yes, I see it: Internet and Video Games. Right there along with a daunting list including depression, stress, sleep, grief, and alcohol. A flood of memories and sadness filled my emotions as I was transported back to where we were six years ago with my son. At this point in the presentation, I wanted to stand up and give my parent peers a big warning: “If your son’s gaming is out of control now, it will be way out of control in college!”

Actually, I know what these parents are thinking: “Maybe something magical will happen to mitigate his gaming habits when we move our gamer-son into his dorm.” Ironically, while they are focusing on their packing list for dorm essentials, their son is only focused on what electronics he will pack. He is fantasizing about his upcoming “gaming heaven” that will be funded by mom and dad–hours of uninterrupted game play, and all-nighters with other gamers in the “game dens” (set up all over college campuses nationwide). He is dreaming of endless fun with no time limits, no chores, no family dinners, no siblings, nor other trivial family obstacles. Sadly, neither he nor his parents understand that his game habit puts him in one of the highest risk categories for dropping out of college during his first year.

Studies show that 85% of college boys are game players, and one in eight develops addiction patterns. In a college of 20,000 students (assuming half are boys), 8,500 are game players. 12.5%, 1 in 8, would mean that 1,063 students are at risk. Research also demonstrates that there is a negative correlation between gaming addiction and expected college engagement, GPA, and even drug and alcohol violations that occur during the first year in college (1). As I glanced across the packed auditorium at all those naive parents, I wondered which ones will be picking up their gaming son prematurely this first year to move him back home. After that, a familiar pattern will likely unfold. He will get a part-time job delivering pizzas, live on his parents’ couch, and pretend that he is looking into local community college options. Stunned and confused over what has just happened, Mom and Dad will scramble to refigure his “Plan B” future while they carry those carefully packed sheets, towels, and dorm supplies to the attic. Like me, they will be shocked and disappointed when they learn, too late, that gaming is a serious addiction that can ruin a young man’s life in its prime and derail even the brightest of students. They will feel alone, embarrassed, anxious, and angry. Perhaps they will start piecing it together and maybe will realize that this problem started years ago under their watch.

After the lecture, I approached the presenter and thanked him for including “Internet and Video Games” on his list of academic impediments. Then I asked him why he did not address the video game problem with the audience. He simply stated that although it was one of the biggest reasons as to why boys struggle and drop out their first year, the college personnel simply did not know what to do about it. After all he said, “Since gaming is a legal activity, we have no control over it.” My heart sank again.

I headed out to the break and overheard a mom who was talking about her gamer son. We chatted, and I shared my experience, as I have done many times over the past six years. Emotionally unraveling right in front of me, she explained that her incoming-freshman son likely will not survive on campus without her there to set his game limits. Her next words were revealing: “He can’t do it on his own. The gaming controls him!” On the slightly positive side, she knows more than I did six years ago. Unfortunately, she is beginning her grieving process early over what she feels will be the inevitable result of his addiction. And he hasn’t even started school yet.

Do you have a gamer headed to college? If so, take time to get informed about this important subject. While your son may occasionally put his game aside for serious studying and healthy activities, the odds are, that he very well may not. Know that he will likely game more in college than he ever did at home. Will that be too much? Know that he may sacrifice social time with real people, deny himself sleep, skip classes and exchange classwork demands for his gaming. The peer pressure to game will be great and the temptation to shift his motivation and competition to his game rather than his grades may be more than he can handle even if he was a straight A student in high school. Your bright student is at a crossroad. Will he be able to survive in college and academically thrive? Or will his game, his social anxiety, his inability to self-advocate and his isolation keep him from getting what he needs in college. Research says that video game use in college leads to lower GPAs. Men now, only make up 42% of college students and fewer men complete college once they start. Tracy Markle, MA. LPC, owner and clinical director of Collegiate Coaching Services, says that gaming overuse is part of every conversation with all departments and is being identified as “a primary factor in student academics, mental health, and social problems on campus. Technology overuse has a negative impact on student isolation problems, grades, depression, lack of self-care, poor diet, sleep problems and substance abuse.” Your student gamer may not be able to afford to bring his game to school.

What can you do before school starts?

Talk with your gamer. I know that this may be uncomfortable and stressful as he will likely roll his eyes and resist, but it is essential. You are running out of time! Richard Freed, my colleague and author of Wired Child offered some suggestions to me recently to help get the conversation started:

Remind him that he is still part of your family unit. Help college-bound freshmen recognize that while they are now legally an adult, they continue to be part of your family, a family in which members have responsibilities to one another. While parents have a responsibility to support their son or daughter in school to the best of their ability, college students have a responsibility to put in an honest, strong effort. This doesn’t entail obtaining a particular GPA, but it does mean attending classes and doing assigned work. College students also have a responsibility to communicate honestly with their parents about their progress at school.

Talk about his potential and how easily it can slip away. If you are concerned that a gaming obsession poses risks to your college-bound freshmen, help them understand that the transition to college is much like a college athlete’s transition to the pros. The fact that students make it to college means they have potential. But just as a pro athlete must start over in the NFL or MLB, the same is true of college students. Too many great college athletes get to the pros, don’t work to better themselves, and are out of sports in a year. The same thing can happen as students transition from high school to college.

Discuss trading one control for another. Students bound for college are often thinking that it will be nice to get away from the control of their mothers and fathers. However, they may not consider how their behavior can just as much be controlled by video games or internet obsession. Gamers easily lose control of how they spend their time. They don’t necessarily want to stay up all night gaming and fail an exam. It just happens. Ask your son to brainstorm ways he can stay in control of his own behavior and how he will manage his free time.

Consider the influence of roommates. Does his roommate play video games? Yes, it makes a difference. If your son’s roommate is a gamer, chances are that they will both play more. Studies show that first-year college roommates have a profound effect on students, and students with gamer roommates tend to study a half hour per day less than non-gamer roommates. This also can result in a lower GPA.

Along with the above talking tips, here are a few other ideas:

Start a summer detox. Have him take four weeks off of gaming while he is at home to see if he can do it. Begin your detox with a summer no-tech-allowed vacation. Make family efforts to designate no tech times during the week and weekend to support his need for family attachment.

Pay attention to his packing list. Do not let him pack his game console, large monitor/screen, games, or extra cable. However, remember that he can play all of his games on his laptop and smartphone.

Don’t fund his game habit. Do not give him money for game subscriptions or high speed internet in his room. He can do his homework in the library. Set limits on his phone data plan to limit large downloads (no more than 1-2 GB per month).

Reconsider his dorm assignment. Make sure he lives in a freshman dorm where an RA is aware of his gaming issue. He might be able to help. If he is in a non-freshman dorm, be aware that he will feel pressure from upper-classmen gamers who have already established their gaming habits.

Establish accountability around free time. Don’t assume that just because he is in a club or sports that he won’t have time to game; remember he will have more free time than he does right now at home. Encourage him to meet new people and try new activities. Set up some accountability with a new friend/RA or perhaps even with his dad. Begin thinking through this now, before he leaves for college.

Monitor game time. Set up accountability software that will help him monitor the actual hours of game play. You be his accountability partner. Remember that game binging is part of the addiction cycle, and college is the perfect place to get lost in a game binge.

Consider a gap year. Don’t assume that college will help him outgrow his gaming; gaming addiction is a real physical, chemical, and emotional problem. He may need professional help or even a treatment center (See ReStart, Collegiate Coaching Services,or Outback Treatment Program). Consider a gap year if you see that he can’t control his gaming at home, and use this year to help him detox and re-focus. I know, that if you are living with an addicted gamer, you secretly want him to grow up and move out of the house. But, sending him to college when he is not ready is not a good use of your money or his time. College should be about developing life and career skills, not gaming skills. A full-time job at home for a year may help him mature and better prepare him for college.

Video game addiction is a growing problem, especially on college campuses. It may be legal, common, accepted, and culturally approved, but it can be life-altering for many. Take a serious look at your teen’s gaming habit and follow your gut feeling on this. He is still an “apprentice adult” and needs your guidance and counsel. It isn’t too late to get him on the right track so that he can experience the best college has to offer!

For more information on gaming addiction, visit us at www.familiesmanagingmedia.com or more specifically: Take the Video Game Addiction Survey, read College Gaming Myths, and Solutions for College Gamers, or contact us at info [at] familiesmanagingmedia [dot] com for additional guidance and resources.

  1. Video Game Addiction and College Performance Among Males: Results from a 1 Year Longitudinal Study Zachary L. Schmitt, BA,1 and Michael G. Livingston, PhD CYBERPSYCHOLOGY, BEHAVIOR, AND SOCIAL NETWORKING Volume 18, Number 1, 2015.