Michael Rich, MD, MPH, is Children’s Hospital Boston’s media expert and director of Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. Take a look at his blog archive or follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston
Q: My 13-year-old son is obsessed with the card game Magic the Gathering (MTG) and occasional video games. Computer time is limited to 45 minutes/weekend day and he rarely plays MTG. However, when he does his homework, he often drifts over to MTG websites and other sites unrelated to homework. He is constantly plotting his next MTG deck and thinking about what cards he can sell to make a profit. He has trouble focusing on the task at hand, whether it’s a school lesson or a karate lesson, and it appears to me that his mind is often on MTG Strategy. I also believe that his recent three-week bout of insomnia could be related to this obsession. How can I get my son to focus on school and his other activities?
~Mind over Magic
A: Dear Mind,
First, know that it is common for children your son’s age to have an interest that grabs their attention in this way, whether it’s MTG, baseball statistics, or anything else. They may spend many hours learning the intricacies of that interest and engaging with it.
If you’re concerned that your son’s card playing is out of balance with other important life activities, here are a few ideas for addressing that issue:
Ask him to teach you how to play MTG. By expressing interest in something that’s clearly so important to him, you let him know that you respect his interests and are willing to engage in things he cares about. That can make it easier to connect, both about MTG and about other topics, by giving you some context for his interest. It also allows him to demonstrate mastery over something that is new to you.
Place the computer in a common area, if it isn’t already there. This will give the ability to monitor his computer activities and may help your son learn to regulate and direct his online homework time.
Challenge him to focus only on homework while he does his homework. Not only will the quality of his work improve, but it may even take less time to complete.
Spend time with him outside. Taking a hike or participating in another fully engaging outdoor activity with you can help create space and perspective, taking him out of a media context for a few hours or a day. Outdoor time can have many other positive health effects on attention, stress, and fitness as well.
If he’s still experiencing bouts of insomnia, there may be a larger issue at play. Try bringing him to his pediatrician and talking through possible contributors, including MTG. If sleep, schoolwork, and relationships aren’t suffering because of his focus on MTG, though, it’s likely just a normal degree of interest for a child his age.