For the most part, Elaine Uskoski and her family were working in the dark.
“There really wasn’t anyone talking about video gaming addiction in my circle,” she says referring to her family’s ordeal which began in 2014. “I wish I’d known it even existed. I would have known what I was looking for. I knew something was wrong. I just couldn’t put a finger on it. And no, it wasn’t drugs. And it wasn’t alcohol. I just I knew there was something going on with my son.”
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Welcome to Where Parents Talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a holistic health practitioner and speaker. Elaine Uskoski is also an author of two books about gaming addiction, a parenting educator, and a mother of two. She joins us today from Guelph, Ontario. Elaine, thanks for being here.
Thanks for having me, man. It’s a pleasure.
I wanted to dive right into your story by asking you what do you wish that you’d known before your son spiraled into his gaming addiction?
Yeah, that’s such a great question. Because, you know, that was back in 2014. And there really wasn’t anyone talking about video gaming addiction in my circle. So first, I wish I’d known it even existed. I would have known what I was looking for. I knew something was wrong. I just couldn’t put a finger on it. And no, it wasn’t drugs. And it wasn’t alcohol. I just I knew there was something going on with my son. So yeah, I wished I had known that it even existed. But apart from that, I wished I had an understanding of how important regulating gaming was, as he was growing up as a child, I think he had too much gaming. I mean, he did well in school and had great marks. And he was involved in sports and had lots of friends. So he looked like a well balanced, stable kid. But I think in the long run, I allowed him to game just too much.
So what did that look like in terms of hours?
And looking back on it now after everything that you’ve all been through? How would you have restructured it or changed it?
I would say in when he was in his teens, he started to gain more. He also started to talk about kids I’d never heard of and I’d asked him who you talking about. And he’d said somebody I met online gaming. And so for me, it was important to talk to him about privacy and not giving up personal information, those sorts of things, keeping him safe online. But as long as he was still seeing his tangible friends. I wasn’t too worried.
He had, you know, during the middle school years pulled away from from some of that, but but he bounced back in high school and made some good friends there. And so yeah, it looked it looked okay in those regards, but I did notice then, he was having difficulty getting up in the morning and getting to school. By grade 12, his mark started to slide.
And, you know, he still got marks to get into university. So he somehow slid under the radar.
It wasn’t until he got into university that things started to really fall apart. And I noticed bigger signs. And the the summer between first and second year of university, he was gaming a lot. So he was working only part time. He was a dishwasher in a restaurant. So he’s working late at night. And then he’d come home and continue to game. Sometimes it would wake me up and I’d have to ask him to stop. And then you know, he’d be sleeping through the day. And when I did approach him to say I think you need to get another job, you’re gaming a lot. He got very angry with me and and yell, this is my last summer free. After this. I’m either going to be in Co Op, or I’m going to be in school. And I just want one last summer. And of course I relented and I wished I hadn’t, because in a second year, first semester, things really got bad. And I I heard I heard from him, if he was answering my texts would be three o’clock in the morning. So I wondered if he was even going to classes. The odd time I saw him his hair was very greasy, he had a smell. He wasn’t taking care of his dental hygiene. And he was wearing braces at the time.
And he started he looked like he was starting to lose weight. He was very shaky all the time.
Of course, every time I asked him questions, he had very justifiable answers. You know, I’m and I’m finding it hard at school. More work. I don’t have time for showers. I’m Yes, I’ll eat more, but I don’t really have time. So he was able to hide it really well.
You know, it’s interesting, because there’s so much in there to unpack so he’s not living under your roof. So you’re not seeing this firsthand. When you do see it. It’s troubling to you. He is an adult for all intents and purposes. So what is you know, what is your involvement as his mother what can it be? What can it look like? So, let me ask you, Elaine, you know, at what point did you say to yourself, you know, this is rock bottom, and we need to intervene? And what did that look like?
I would say probably a few days to a week. Prior to me hearing from him. I said to him in a text are you even attending classes you are appear to be a bit of a Nighthawk you’re answering me at three in the morning. And again, he said he was up and doing an assignment. And in my gut, I thought, I think I, I need to really be watching this closer, something’s really wrong. And then I received on October 31 2014, an email from him. And he wasn’t coming clean and saying that he was a gaming addict. But he had not attended classes for two months. And the university caught up with him and said, you know, you can’t live in residence. You’re not a registered student. He’d been deregistered. He missed the payment. He made it late. So we’ve been deregistered from classes as well, hadn’t told us. And he was told that the locks would be changed. And he’d have to find another place to live via three days. So he was calling because he was sort of trapped in a corner.
And, you know, I picked up the phone immediately because he was so distraught in the email, and said, What do you need, and he burst into tears and said, I need you to tell me this is all going to be okay. I said, we’ll make it okay. I didn’t know what that was gonna look like. But I knew he needed me in that moment. So I drove to the university and I was so afraid during that drive, that that I would get there and find that he taken his life because he just sounded so fragile. So it’s a very scary long drive. And when he opened the door, boy did I open my eyes. He is six foot two, he was 19 at the time, and he had dropped to 127 pounds. He had facial tics, tremors, his hair was greasy, he smelled horrific. He looked like he’d been wearing the same clothes for days. His complexion, which was normally squeaky clean was just a mess of acne, I didn’t even recognize him. He was just a sack of bones.
And that’s when I started to realize this is way bigger than you know. He’s just struggling with school, and started to remember what happened in the summer and thought I think he’s got an addiction because he did say that he was up all night, up to 16 hours gaming until he would pass out. And then he would sleep all day. That’s how he was filling his time, instead of going to class full of anxiety didn’t know what to do. Because he was an adult felt he needed to figure this out. And the more time that went that he couldn’t figure it out, the more he panicked and the more he gained. So to me that looked like an addiction issue. So I brought him home. And we had a long talk. I really approached it with as much empathy as I could because I knew this isn’t what he wanted. I knew he wanted to make me proud, like any kid wants to make their parent proud, he was choosing this.
And I made him detox from the gaming completely initially, I took him to the doctor’s to get him a health check out and he was diagnosed with severe anxiety and depression. And I started to get him on a healthy eating plan, get him back to daytime, nighttime sleeping, that was normal. And I took him to my fitness classes in the morning hoping that some exercise would the dopamine from the exercise would replace some of the gaming dopamine but also elevate his mood. And I watched him 24/7 on suicide watch, because I didn’t know what was going to happen. At this point. I didn’t know how he would react to losing the gaming on top of you know, being so depressed and anxious. And the doctor was able to get him to see a therapist for eight weeks wasn’t an addiction specific therapist. He wasn’t familiar with gaming addiction. And so of course Jake manipulated him and and had him believe that he didn’t have an addiction, they actually together came up with a plan so that he could schedule gaming time in when he returned to university and second semester, which I was not on board with whatsoever. But of course he was an adult and I couldn’t control what he was doing when he got to university. So he returned second semester to pick up the three courses that he had failed. In first semester, we learned that when he was home, it wasn’t the success he said it was.
And within a week I got that bad gut feeling again. And this time, I went back to the university to check on him and he came to the door and I could see he had relapsed immediately. And he believed with eight weeks of counseling under his belt that he could play for an hour. So he loaded the game on the Sunday night when we dropped him off and thinking he could only play for an hour. And he played all night and he didn’t go to classes for another week again. So I brought him home again. And we talked about what he thought the issues might be the emotional issues, the struggles he had with school the the lack of competence he had in himself.
And I asked him again, you know, sky is the limit
What do you need? Do you want to go to university? Do you want to do something else? Do you want a gap year? Do we can change this plan? This isn’t what you have to do? And he said, No, I want to get my university degree. And
I said, so then what do you need from me, and he said, I need you to drive me to school, and walk me to classes until I can do it on my own. If you set me back on my own, I can’t trust myself not to gain. So he had the insight to realize he needed help. And I, you know, was so proud of him to be 19 years old, asking his mother to drive him to school and walk into class. And, and so that’s what I did, I put my business on hold. And that’s exactly what I did. And until he could manage on his own, and then once he was felt he could get into classes and stay in residence through the week, he was required to take a picture of himself in every lecture, and send it to me by email. So he’d have accountability. And he had to come home on the weekends. And that that went on for two and a half years with, you know, relapse, detox, relapse detox, until he finally made the decision that it was, it was ruining his life to gain and he needed to stop.
That is an incredible journey, Elaine, and I, you know, as I listened to you what, what strikes me is, obviously, as a parent, your first concern is for your child. But what was it like for you, as his mom processing all the things that you needed to do for him to set him up for success? In other words, you know, we’re talking about a time, as you mentioned, in 2014, where this was not on people’s radar, by and large as it is potentially today. So you know, what resources were you able to access? How did you formulate this plan? And also, where did you get the courage to say, Okay, this is what we’re gonna do, and listen to what he had to say, and just find a way to move forward.
He was a good kid, he really was, he still is. So you don’t turn your back on a good kid. He had goals. He was he was lost, I just sensed he was lost. And he’d gotten himself, you know, into a position where he had to keep lying and manipulating to maintain the addiction. And I knew he didn’t feel good about that. He he, he said, When he finally stopped gaming for good, he said, Now I have to learn how to stop lying, because I’ve just been living alive for years. And that was important to him to get his integrity back.
You know, I really relied on my own self care plan, which I always have done, I continued to play tennis, I continue to do my fitness, I continued to, you know, allow my girlfriend’s to rally around me as we do in these times. Honestly, my girlfriend’s saved my life.
And I decided, when I took him back to university, after that first relapse, that I just couldn’t do this on my own. And so I went to student services with him. And we told them the situation. And they actually were enormously helpful, helpful. That was the University of Guelph, they provided him with a counselor, a peer support person and a special needs advisor. Because he was reapplying as a student with severe anxiety and depression. He was allowed to have a special needs advisor, and that that helped him immensely to have that support at the school level.
And I just knew I needed to stay stronger for him because he wasn’t strong. So I just dug in and went into autopilot. Honestly,
I can’t, I can’t tell you how I felt the strength. I just dug real deep, and had a lot of support around me as well.
Now, video, gaming addiction is classified as a disorder by the World Health Organization. Elaine, having lived through everything you’ve lived through, what do you want parents to know about the seriousness of this disorder, as well as signs and symptoms that they can watch out for? To be proactive before this potentially becomes an issue in their household?
Yeah, great question. Lianne. I, to me, the most important thing parents can do is listen to their children, and listen without judgment. One of the common themes that I’m seeing with my gaming diction families, is that kids are not feeling heard or seen the way that they want to be seen and heard. You know, and as parents, we show up with our own expectations and dreams and ideals about our children and something
times that Mars the way we really see who they are. And so it’s really important to bridge that gap. And so part of the prevention is to just really hear your, your kids.
And just listen, that’s what they need. They, they don’t always need you to direct them, or save them. They need to learn resilience, and they need to feel like they’re capable of taking care of themselves down the road.
So, in terms of how I feel about video, gaming addiction, overall, is that it is a symptom of something emotionally deeper. And if we can not focus so much on the addiction and the problem, but remember that there’s a child and a spirit behind that addiction that we need to take care of.
In terms of signs and symptoms, we look for kids basically deciding that everything else that was important before gaming no longer is important to them. You know, they give up sports and theater and friendships and time spent with family, we look for
changes in sleep pattern. They’re far more tired, because they’re staying up late gaming at night, they’re more agitated. Sometimes they’re depressed and anxious. Some kids, when you ask them to get off of gaming, you try to remove it. If they’re severely addicted, they can become very violent, volatile, sometimes they can become very despondent, sometimes suicidal. So we watch for those kinds of threats, eating habits change, are they eating in their room on the console, junk food, and some kids are wearing hats with little tubes of caffeinated drinks, so they can stay up late and stay perky and an energized to play the game. And they’re eating garbage. They’re not eating well, or they’re not eating at all. In my son’s case, he was eating very little, or they’re overeating. And so they’re either gaining too much weight, or they’re losing too much weight.
And are they using gaming when they’re upset? So is it a place that they go to, to escape or to use as a coping mechanism?
Changes in school are their grades slipping. So those are some of the signs that we look for and regulate, regulate, regulate, give your kids a balance of other activities outside of gaming, make sure they’re getting exercise, make sure they’re eating healthy, make sure they have regular sleep habits. No phones, no digital devices at the table, eat together as a family play together as a family and keep that communication line open. Because I think that’s the most important thing of all.
Now, you’ve taken this journey that your family has been on, and you’ve turned it into two books, and your latest book is called Cyber sober. Could you share with us, Elaine? Because it focuses on strategies for parents, you know, who may have a child with gaming addiction? What would you say your top three takeaways for parents from cyber sober are?
I would say get help. I wouldn’t do this alone. I mean, I did it alone. But I mean, I did have some supports. And he never did have addiction. specific therapy that would be important to have. If you need a coach as well for some strategies, whatever you can get in terms of help talk to your doctor, talk to a counselor. But definitely don’t try to do this alone. It is a very long and arduous frustrating
task and you’ll you’re left feeling so helpless so much of the time. And it’s a it’s a real energy drain. It’s very hard on the rest of the family as well when there are other children in the home. So that I would say that’s the first takeaway is to get help.
To not be so negative about gaming. I mean, there are a lot of great things about gaming. There’s life skills that are translatable from gaming, like tenacity and determination, problem solving, team building, micro macro management. It’s a it’s a great form of family recreation, you can play together. So try to understand what it is that your child loves about gaming and take an interest in the game instead of harping on, you know, games as a negative thing. That’s the thing I hear most commonly.
And I would say he said three things.
I mean, in the book, my I interview my son on four different occasions for the book, and he talks about his own journey and how difficult it was for him to resist the gaming but also how difficult it was for him to faced pain that he was feeling inside. And so you need to recognize that if your child is addicted, they’re in pain emotionally. And so we need to have awareness of that. And they need to have a place to express that, that feels safe and non-judgmental for them.
You talk about recognizing the signs and symptoms, and in the case of your son,
you know, in doing the research, you now feel that bullying, when he was in middle school could also have been a root cause and a contributing factor. Could you take us through a little bit of that, and and how important that might be for parents to address if their child is being bullied perhaps is a bully him or herself? How does what does that look like? In your estimation?
Yeah, when we look at addiction, using the intent of clinical training, we look at three types of addicted gamers. One is the escape er gamer, that’s the gamer that you may have suffered, some trauma may be bullied, maybe on the spectrum, struggling socially, may have anxiety, depression, ADHD also can be part of that. And they will use gaming to escape. And it’s a coping mechanism for them. And then we look at the high achievers. And these are gamers who may not be getting the feedback they’re looking for in life. So may not be hearing from teachers, what they need to hear, or their grades are not what they want them to be, you know, feedback at home may not be great, or if we’re in their social circles. And so they go to gaming to find a sense of quick and easy reward with lower risk. So they can have high achievement and feel a sense of high achievement in themselves. And then we have the hardcore gamers. And that’s a combination of the two, and they are at the most risk of becoming addicted. And that was my son, he was a hardcore gamer. So you know, his grades had slipped, he he didn’t like school, school was not a place he enjoyed, it just wasn’t conducive to his style of learning. So it was always a struggle. He’s a bright kid.
But you know, he thought he was capable of doing much better than he did. And so gaming gave him that opportunity to, you know, feel that sense of high achievement, he could be the best and great at something there. And and hear that from his online peers. And in middle school, he left his school and went to his, he left grade, the end of grade five and went to a new school, new middle school in a different town, because he wanted to go into the gifted program. And so he he was in a new school, and there wasn’t very many of his friends from his old school that joined him there. And so he just felt isolated. And he didn’t feel like he could just get into the inner circle that easy. And then he started to be bullied. And, you know, he told me he was being bullied, but he and I asked if he wanted to help. And he said, No, no, I’m handling it fine. And in retrospect, I don’t think he was. And I think that’s when he probably needed me to intervene the most.
So his brother was leaving, who’s four years older, and they’re very close still today. He was leaving on a school exchange to Spain. And he was worried about their relationship. And he wanted to stay in touch with his little brother and, and make sure their relationship maintained its closeness. And so he was playing an online multiplayer game, and decided that he would introduce his little brother to it so that they could still play this game, even though they were 1000s of miles apart. And it just so happened that at the same time of my son was being bullied. And so that created a beautiful environment for him to find online friends, and be part of a circle where he felt he was accepted as a gamer, and as somebody that was good at something. And so it was a great place for him to escape and find a social circle. And that’s when he started giving up, you know, spending time with some of his tangible friends because he’d found all his friends online, and they had become his special people.
So, you know, obviously this topic is even more timely and relevant as we speak during this pandemic, when you know, all of us have just been exposed to screens, basically, day and night. What do you want parents to really know about? What they just about how serious of an issue this can be and how, you know, not monitoring or not really understanding your child’s use of devices, their exposure to screens or having rules and boundaries around that could potentially lead to something like an addiction.
Yeah, it’s a very worrisome time for many reasons.
The online gaming world has increased the multibillion dollar industry is increased profits massively during COVID far more kids are online gaming now and adults as well. Seniors are now spending more time gaming. Also, child exploitation is increasing now and, and that happens in gaming as well. Besides not just on social media, in I just read a statistic yesterday that 2021 was the worst year ever for child exploitation and abuse. So that’s a concern for me. But also, gaming addiction has increased during this time, you know, kids are there online. And they they’re, they’re attending classes, technically, but they’ve got a whole lot of other tabs open. And they’re sort of paying attention or not paying attention to school. And you know, they’re on other tabs talking to their friends on Discord, or they’re watching YouTube videos, or Netflix, or they’re playing video games or, or doing all of them, they’re multitasking. And so I often tell parents, I always tell parents, gaming, or usage of digital devices should not be behind a bedroom door. It should be in a central location in the home where it can be supervised, and when it is in that central location and supervised, be watching how many tabs are open, because in my son’s case, I would walk into his room to check to see if he was doing his homework. And I realized later, he was just flipping over to another tab. And making it look like he was working on his homework when in fact he was playing a game. So that’s a very worrisome thing that children are at home now unmonitored.
And I think it’s really important for parents more than ever to regulate gaming time during COVID. And to make sure kids get outside and get some fresh air and some exercise, and you know, have time to read books and do art and, and play with the family and find other things to do. Because it’s so easy when you’re home and you’re isolated from your friends to just go online and spend time with them. And you know, kids are spending, you know, up to 1214 hours online. And they say, Well, this is this is my social time, this is the time to be with my friends. But if they weren’t online, there’s absolutely no way we have our kids out for 12 or 14 hours spending time with their friends. I mean, I enjoy playing tennis, but I don’t play for 12 to 14 hours straight, I’d be exhausted. And so we really have to think about, you know, yeah, it’s a great social time, but there’s a time for friends. And then there’s a time for family. And then there’s a time to be on your own and there’s time for school and there’s time for exercise. And it’s okay to be bored. You know, boredom is the best time for minds to become creative.
And so it don’t try to fill your kids every board moment with a digital device.
That’s excellent advice. And I think we’re, we’re all guilty of doing that on some level. I’d like to end on an optimistic note, Elaine, your son is doing well. He’s now 26. Can you tell us what his relationship with technology is like, and just generally how he’s doing today?
Yeah, he thanks so much for asking. I’m so proud of him. He is four and a half years completely detoxed, he decided to never game again. I mean, that is an ongoing process. He does have a support system and a recovery plan in place during COVID. He struggled and wanted to game so he actually came home for a couple of months and stayed with us because he just didn’t trust himself. So that’s part of his support system. He knows he can always reach out to us.
But he has made the commitment at this point to not gain he is he did get his degree. And he is a software developer, and has a great job that he absolutely loves. He got himself a little kitten during COVID. And so that’s helped a lot. He says, you know, she’s a reason for him to get up in the day and, and have purpose and has another little being to look after and helped get him through through some of the loneliness of COVID. He’s got a lot of great tangible friends that he did make his last couple of years at university. And so when he can, he spends time with them. He and his brother live in the same neighborhood. So they’re close.
And yeah, he is very healthy and he he weighs 185 pounds now. Smells good.
And sometimes he speaks with me anytime he can help he will I mean he that’s not his thing. He tells me I’m this is not my full-time job that yours mom. But anytime he can speak he does and he’s always so happy when he can, you know just help even one other person.
That’s a wonderful story and a wonderful end to your story Elaine Uskoski a speaker educator mother of two and author of cyber sober a caregivers guide to video gaming addiction thank you so much for your time today.
Thank you Lianne it’s beautiful.
On the surface, everything looked relatively normal with her youngest son, at that time, Uskoski told Lianne Castelino during an interview for Where Parents Talk.
“He did well in school and had great marks. And he was involved in sports and had lots of friends,” says the mother of two boys. “So, he looked like a well-balanced, stable kid.”
In retrospect and after helping bring her son back from the brink, Uskoski better understands the signs she was presented with more clearly and is determined to share that knowledge with other parents who may find themselves walking a similar path.
“I wished I had an understanding of how important regulating gaming was, as he was growing up as a child,” she admits. “I think he had too much gaming. I think in the long run, I allowed him to game just too much.”
Uskoski says progressive increases in the amount of time Jake spent video gaming as a teen regressed to a point of no return when he began university and was living away from home.
“I noticed bigger signs,” she says. “The summer between first and second year of university, he was gaming a lot. He was a dishwasher in a restaurant, so he was working late at night. And then he’d come home and continue to game. Sometimes it would wake me up and I’d have to ask him to stop. And then you know, he’d be sleeping through the day. And when I did approach him to say I think you need to get another job, you’re gaming a lot, he got very angry with me.”
Things continued to get worse for Jake. His mother’s intuition was telling her the same.
Everything came to a head in a troubling email from Jake to his mom. It was quickly followed by a harrowing drive that Elaine had to make to his university residence.
What followed for the Uskoski family was a years-long journey that prompted Elaine to pen two books on video gaming addiction to help parents, caregivers and educators with what they need to know before, after and during — should gaming became an issue in their home.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes gaming addiction as a disorder in 2018, describing the compulsive behaviour and mental health condition as a, “clinically recognizable and clinically significant syndrome, when the pattern of gaming behaviour is of such a nature and intensity that it results in marked distress or significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational or occupational functioning.”
The increased exposure of children and adolescents, in particular, to digital devices — for learning, social interaction and entertainment, etc., during the COVID-19 global pandemic — has further fuelled fears in many families of excess screen time that could lead to challenges like too much gaming.
During her interview with Where Parents Talk, Elaine Uskoski also discusses:
- Signs, symptoms and coping strategies for video gaming addiction
- The role of bullying in gaming addiction
- How to help a video gaming addict
- Relapses and how to overcome them
- What motivated her to write two books for parents, educators and caregivers on video gaming addiction
- Impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic on gaming addiction