Teen Gaming

“Not Now, Mom, I’m in Combat!”
Teens Have a Hard Time Turning Off Video Games, Even After Midnight

By Robert Andrews

“I know I probably shouldn’t stay up until 2:00am on school nights,” reports Gilberto, a 16 year-old high school junior in my biology class. “It’s just that, I’m really into my PlayStation. The competition is pretty intense and my friends are counting on me. It’s really fun, and once the adrenaline gets pumping, it’s hard to quit. You get caught up in it and lose track of time.”

Teens making unwise decisions is not exactly headline news. Over the last decade or so, however, my fellow teachers and I have noticed a trend: more and more students are chronically sleepy, moody, and inattentive. When questioned, many of them give the same explanation as Gilberto—they are hooked on video games and often play them late into the night.

Our gamers are not just drowsy in class; sometimes they are fast asleep. When awake, they are often testy and unfocused—and they are overwhelmingly boys.

As online games have become more immersive and compelling, more young people have become drawn to them. As Gilberto explains, peer pressure also plays a role, “I know I spend too much time on PlayStation. What can I say, I like soccer and volleyball, but this is way more fun. My friends and me, we’re all into it. We help each other out. It’s more exciting than watching a movie or anything like that.”

For many, the role-playing and competition becomes the focus of their lives. Playing until 1:00, 2:00, 3:00 in the morning—with friends and online competitors from around the world—becomes a higher priority than sleep.

What is it about video games that make them so compelling to young people? Certainly advancing technology has resulted in more engaging games. A study published in the March 2016 issue of Sleep Medicine identified several factors that contribute to teenagers’ gaming addictions:

  • Gamers often find themselves in a state of “flow”—a “positive state of intense immersion in an activity” in which the player is “flowing from one moment to the next… in control of his actions, and in which there is little distinction between self and environment, between stimulus and response, between past, present, and future.” In Gilberto’s words, “you get caught up in it and lose track of time.”
  • Lack of parental control. A recent study showed that most parents “rarely” or “never” limit their children’s use of electronics.
  • Access. 72% of U.S. adolescents have access to an electronic device in their bedroom, most commonly a laptop or tablet.
  • Lack of maturity, increased risk-taking, and failure to understand the negative consequences of risk-taking (these are practically part of the definition of adolescence).

Biology plays a role too. Teenagers’ brains are actually programmed to keep later hours. The problem is, the rest of the world doesn’t run on the same schedule.

Recent research in sleep science reveals that teenagers, especially boys, have a biological preference for “eveningness”—staying up later after dark, before becoming sleepy. The brain releases a sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin, soon after dark. However, for teenagers, the release of melatonin occurs later at night for teenagers than for younger children and adults. This “eveningness” trait may have had an evolutionary advantage for humans. Individuals with the trait tend to be more extroverted and novelty-seeking, enabling them to find more sexual partners and therefore being more successful in passing on their genes to the next generation.

For teenagers in today’s world, however, staying up later after dark means that they will be less rested when the alarm clock wakes them for school the next day. The result is daytime sleepiness, moodiness, behavior issues, and lower achievement at school.

I asked Gilberto what time he typically quit the games and went to bed. “Usually around 1:30 or 2:00am, most of us call it quits. The thing is, your brain is still fired up from all the excitement and the competition. You can’t just go right to sleep, you have to wind down for a while. Maybe get something to eat, watch some Netflix, that kind of thing.”

Research has shed some light on this phenomenon as well. Gaming causes the brain to become revved up—neurons are stimulated and electrical activity increases. Competition causes the “fight or flight” response—the body tenses, the adrenal gland secretes cortisol (a stress hormone), heart rate increases. The stimulating, daylight-like bluish glow from computer screens delays the release of melatonin, the “sleepiness hormone.” If you’re impaling dragons or vaporizing space-bots until 2:00am, you can’t just shut off the computer and fall asleep by 2:05. It takes some time for the body to shift into sleep mode.

Finally, there is the question of how late-night gaming affects the quality of sleep. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Sleep Research found that heavy gamers have an increased risk of poor sleep quality and insomnia. It seems that gamers may not be as well rested as non-gamers who get the same amount of sleep. And, as numerous studies have shown, adequate sleep is closely tied to achievement in school.

Parents of late-night gamers are the first line of defense to help ensure that their children get adequate sleep. Some steps that parents can take are:

  • Explain the negative effects of late-night gaming and sleep deprivation to your teenagers
  • Join the movement towards “electronics-free bedrooms”
  • Set limits on electronics use. Curfews are never an easy sell, but they are as important for late-night gaming as they are for socializing.
  • Urge your school to adopt a later start time, to accommodate the natural sleep/wake cycles of adolescents. Many schools have reported improvements in student achievement and health as a result of a later start time.
  • Install software that changes the nature of light emitted by computer screens at night. Apple’s Flux app for Mac and Night Shift for iPhone are examples. These apps cause computer screens to produce more warm yellow (rather than bluish) light at night. This decreases brain stimulation and enables more melatonin production before bed, which promotes a good night’s sleep.

As they say, you have to choose your battles, especially as the parent of an adolescent. Take it from a high school teacher; your child’s success in school depends on their being well-rested. It may not be as much fun as zapping intergalactic invaders, but it’s a battle worth fighting.

Robert Andrews was a science teacher for 11 years for the Los Angeles Unified School District and is currently in an out-of-classroom position with the district. He is the parent of three daughters who are now thankfully past their teens. In addition to teaching, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, Ventura County Star, Technical Communication magazine, and other journals.

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