Among children, gaming addiction is becoming increasingly prevalent. Why do some kids become addicts and not others? What can we do about it?

If you have a teenager, you’ve probably had to think about online games, like Fortnite. The game’s popularity is so pervasive that it’s the equivalent of the yo-yo in the 70s or the Rubik’s cube in the 80s. However, the yo-yo and the Rubik’s cube were just annoying to parents who pleaded, “Please, put that thing down and eat your dinner!”

Parents dealing with Fortnite, and games like it, have to think, ‘Is this affecting my child’s health? Is my child addicted?” They are reasonable concerns, especially when we often have little understanding of digital gaming ourselves.

Mr Alan Drakesmith is Head of Technologies at Wesley College in Perth. He says, “Gaming addiction is complicated. It isn’t as simple as counting how many hours a person is online. It has much more to do with why they are gaming.” In order to understand a child’s gaming addiction, we need to look at why kids love gaming.

Why do kids love gaming so much?

1. Gaming is heavily structured for success, achievement and acknowledgement. Players generally graduate through levels of a game depending on their proficiency. There is a strong sense of achievement and potency for players as they progress through the levels and overcome challenges. We all like to feel as though we have achieved and digital gaming makes success explicit. This is all particularly attractive to a child who is experiencing limited success in other parts of his or her life.

2. Some children find great comfort in the portability of the safe, consistent world that gaming provides. At a time in their life where they have a lot of change to their bodies, social life and evolving place in the world, teens and tweens find it refreshing to have a domain where they are in charge and in control. Some children who have disruptive family lives like the stability of the game world. There may be constant change in their daily lives, but the game world is consistently safe.

3. Gaming provides inclusion for a lot of people who feel excluded in mainstream life. The anonymity of online gaming allows complete integration and acceptance. If a child is bullied or unhappy socially, gaming provides a chance to be accepted and valued. It is interesting to note that gaming is very popular among the disabled community. It provides an opportunity to compete on an equal playing field.

4. There is a strong sense of community among gamers. The very nature of many multi-player online games is that players must work together as a team to overcome obstacles and achieve objectives. The chat function and player message boards, where players discuss the game, forge community and friendships. There is a sense of belonging and connection. We all want that. In this way, a lot of psychological needs are met within gaming communities that may not be met elsewhere.

5. Ultimately, gaming is fun. It’s exciting and challenging and it casts the player as a hero. There is music, excitement and constant movement and colour. Players receive a rush of endorphins, which are ‘feel good hormones’, and there is constant comradery.

Among children, gaming addiction is becoming increasingly prevalent. Why do some kids become addicts and not others? What can we do about it?

When is gaming problematic?

Mr Drakesmith says that “Schools are a reflection of society, so it isn’t a surprise that teachers encounter students showing signs of problematic gaming. Signs like, trying to circumvent the school’s cybersecurity systems to access games in school time or becoming uncharacteristically moody or aggressive.”

Gaming may also start to interfere with sleep, concentration levels and homework and thus performance at school.

Time spent gaming in some cases is significant. Some parents and students are reporting children spending up to 18 hours a day gaming on weekends and holidays. I think we can all agree that those extended sessions are not healthy physically or psychologically. It is also time taken away from other activities and chances to socialise with family and friends.“

Will my child become addicted?

New Zealand psychotherapist, James Driver, has done an extensive study on gaming addiction. He says that problematic and addictive gaming begin when people need the game to meet a lot of their psychological and social needs. “Playing for fun is very different from playing in order to escape difficult things in life or to attain a sense of purpose or power.”

According to Driver, the children at highest risk of addiction are kids who have social anxieties and psychological needs that are not being met in their daily lives. He also singles out students who are highly intelligent and enjoy problem-solving, but who are not being appropriately challenged by school or other outside activities.

Advice for Parents

1. Closely monitor your child’s gaming and be observant of their behaviour. Drakesmith says, “If there is aggression to other family members that is new, or a lack of involvement in activities that they previously enjoyed, pay attention. It may not be a result of gaming but it’s worthy of investigation.”

2. Understand the games your child plays so that you can talk about gaming from an informed position. Play the games with your child. Who knows, you might like it!

3. Children need strong boundaries and consistency when it comes to gaming. Your family needs to have clear expectations and agreements that are discussed, understood and adhered to.

Ultimately, If lack of connection drives addiction, we should be making sure our children feel connected, seen and heard. They need adults in their lives who spend quality time with them and truly listen.

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