This month sees the opening of the first NHS-funded gaming addiction centre, which will admit children as young as 12.
A centre dedicated to gaming addiction is controversial as some people argue it’s premature and a waste of NHS money. I think it’s long overdue to acknowledge how serious gaming addiction is.
As a mother of three boys, of which two are teenagers, I have fought many battles around electronic devices and the amount of time spent on them but this summer was a wake-up call.
I was looking forward to going on holiday with my three boys. Even though I had a clear vision of the things we would be doing, I didn’t anticipate it would be easy. I knew that electronics and the use of them would be a force to be reckoned with but I didn’t expect Fortnite to turn into my number one enemy! It was me – wanting to spend quality time with my boys – against Fortnite, which was luring my kids away, into a different world full of adrenaline hits and increased dopamine levels, making experiences in the real world appear rather dull and unappealing.
Despite a clear agreement that daytime would be reserved for exploration in the real world with real people (e.g. family), and evenings a time to do what everyone wanted, I could tell that my two teenage sons struggled to fully embrace whatever we were doing during the day as they just couldn’t wait to get back to game. Nothing seemed to capture their imagination, neither amazing watersports opportunities, nor magical places we went to. They just couldn’t wait to get back to the base to shoot as many people as possible in the virtual world in order to be “the last man standing”. Had I lost my teenage boys to Fortnite? Well, my parental magic powers felt rather pathetic compared to Fortnite’s superpowers.
One could argue it’s just the age, but I don’t believe it’s just that. I believe games like Fortnite potentially pose a very real threat to young people and family life.
The games are designed to get our kids hooked, and before we know it our innocent children have turned into gaming “addicts”. And we parents are unwittingly supplying the “drug” (phones, Xbox, PS4 etc).
Fortnite has about 125 million users worldwide, mostly kids under the age of 18.
The game is free but then you pay for extras, which is putting the emphasis on game developers to make them incredibly addictive and meet psychological needs, such as significance and connection, to incentivise players to spend money and time on these games. The easy and regular access most children and teenagers have to electronic devices nowadays also makes them invest many hours competing against other players – if the duration is not limited by an adult.
Of course not everyone who games gets obsessed but a lot of youngsters show signs of gaming disorder. The WHO has recently recognised gaming disorder as a mental health issue and it classifies it as a pattern of persistent gaming behaviour so severe it “takes precedence over other life interests”, which can lead to disruption of work, school, education or family life, an ongoing preoccupation with games, risk to relationships and withdrawal symptoms when not gaming.
I would add to the list the lack of physical exercise which affects children’s well-being. Fitness is a key element of well-being, strongly correlated with positive outcomes such as success in school, better sleep and reduced stress. When we move more, we are happier and healthier. Fortnite is the opposite of movement; the media is not short of stories of young people so glued to the screen that they wet themselves – to leave the screen for even a few moments could undo all the effort invested up to that point.
Even though there is evidence as to how addictive games like Fortnite can be and the negative impact excessive gaming can have on young people and their families, there is little consensus and no templates parents can use as a compass.
Having said all that, I don’t believe gaming per se is bad. In fact there are some positive aspects; e.g gaming can improve cognitive abilities. Gaming can also be a way to shut down the noise in our brain (scientists call this noise the “Default Mode Network” or “DMN”).This may explain it’s massive appeal amongst teenagers who are potentially going through a lot of noise in their brain and harsh voices in their head whilst finding their feet in a difficult and complex world. Gaming can offer respite.
I have thought deeply about the complex problem as it not just affects my children and family life but I’m also working with parents who are asking for help. In extreme cases electronics can result in household violence by children against their parents, who are trying to take away their games.
I have come to some conclusions as to how to tackle the problem.
As parents we need to be aware of the power of these games and we need to understand that our kids and adolescents are often not mature enough to control or protect themselves from the addictive nature of games like Fortnite.
I applaud the recognition of gaming disorder and the opening of a centre but tackling the problem starts at home. I do believe that as parents and caregivers we need to take control and have clear rules and time limitations around gaming in order to prevent disorder.
In my opinion banning gaming at home is not the solution but instead limiting the amount of time played on it and offering alternative activities. Vigilance is key in ensuring that its use doesn’t tip over into an unhealthy realm.
Here are some ideas/thoughts that work with my teenagers (most of the time)
– Try not to be confrontational. Even though you may feel that your child is being hijacked by Fortnite, try to acknowledge that he/she gets enjoyment out of gaming without being judgemental (“I can see you are enjoying playing it …I can see you are in the middle of a game; would you be so nice and stop when the game is finished … as agreed”)
Note: Fortnite games can last anywhere from 10-30 minutes and pulling someone out mid-game can be a very jarring experience for a younger player, so if possible I would allow them to finish a game.
– Involve your children in finding a balance. As so often in life, it is about the right balance and finding a compromise. If your children are involved in coming to an agreement as to when and for how long they are allowed to play, they are more likely to stick to it.
In terms of balance I feel gaming should have the satus of a treat. I find it helpful to take the word “treat” quite literally. We probably wouldn’t feed our children chocolate and cake as a main course, but make sure they have had a balanced meal before dessert/pudding. The main course may vary but it will probably consist of a combination of homework (vegs), chores (carbs) and hopefully activities in the real world (protein).
Set a good example. Even though it may look like your teenager is not paying much attention to what you do or don’t do, they need you more than they know (and maybe you know) as a role model. It is important that you don’t spend excessive time in front of electronic devices when you are with your kids. I believe that it’s hugely underestimated how much our use of electronic devices (even if it’s work related) at home influences our children. Perhaps you could introduce a good, old fashioned board games evening (we recently rediscovered Monopoly), where the whole family can participate and have fun in the non-virtual reality.