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Children and gaming devices – the red flags and when parents need to be concerned

Over the last year or two I have noticed that my 9 year old son has become less and less interested in toys, books, pets, imaginative play and even TV. Instead he gravitates constantly to his tablet. Although he is an only child, life naturally limits his access – school, family activities and sports take up alot of his time, but when he has any down time he now automatically spends it on his tablet unless I insist he does something else. This one-track focus has been worrying me for some time, and I decided to do some research into kids’ use of videogames, appropriate amounts of time to spend gaming, and when parents should intervene.

In May 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recognised ‘gaming disorder’ as a behavioural addiction and added it to the International Classification of Diseases. They recognised that too much gaming can tip over into addiction, having a detrimental effect on many aspects of a young person’s life and impacting families.

In the light of this, should I be actively curbing my son’s obsession with using his tablet for Minecraft and YouTube at every opportunity? What are the warning signs I should be looking for? When does over-enthusiastic gaming tip over into something more serious and approach the boundaries of addiction?

I know there are many other parents out there who share my concerns, and wonder how to address these problems with their own kids. In fact a survey carried out in 2018 showed that approximately half of parents of school-age children worry about their kids becoming addicted to computer games. I’ve collated the information I have found and I hope it will be useful to other parents looking for advice.

Addiction is rare
Firstly, some reassurance. Gaming disorder is not something that happens to every child who enjoys video games. It affects a tiny proportion and usually takes a long while to develop into a full blown addiction, giving parents ample time to take mitigating action. Gaming disorder is a new phenomenon but the data gathered so far suggests that teens and young people, especially boys, are most susceptible. There is also a correlation between those that suffer from anxiety, depression or similar mental health conditions and those that are more likely to become addicted.

What is gaming addiction?
The WHO defines gaming disorder as a “pattern of gaming behavior (“digital-gaming” or “video-gaming”) characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”

The WHO also states: “For gaming disorder to be diagnosed, the behaviour pattern must be of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning and would normally have been evident for at least 12 months.”

So in other words, it’s not really the quantity of gaming by itself that is problematic, it’s the way this affects the gamer and other areas of their life. However, it follows that the more hours spent gaming per day or week, the more the risks of developing a dependency are increased.

How to spot the warning signs
As parents in the internet age, an era of omnipresent tech and toxic social media, we have much to be vigilant about and – in my case – much to learn. To find out more about how to prevent gaming disorder before it develops I have read several good articles on the subject, many by experts in the field, and they all agreed on the main indicators that point in the direction of addiction. They also agree that if there is any chance the behaviours you see could be due to a developing addiction, early detection and treatment are always best.

I have summarised what the experts say we should look out for.

  • Excessive use, constant references to gaming, extreme reluctance to stop playing (anger and/or aggression).
  • Disruption of essential activities such as interfering with sleep patterns, disinterest in meals, poor personal hygiene.
  • Physical effects such as sore wrists and hands, sore eyes, back and neck pain.
  • Increased anxiety, mood swings, impact on relationships with family and friends.
  • Distracted, fidgety, frustrated and agitated when not able to play.
  • Avoidance of school or other obligations in order to game, leading to an impact on performance.
  • Lying to loved ones about time spent gaming and subsequent impact on other areas of life.

In the USA, medical authorities have put together a list of symptoms for children and adults to consult. If they tick 5 or more and these persist for 12 months then a diagnosis of gaming disorder will be made.

  • Thinking about gaming all or a lot of the time
  • Feeling bad when you can’t play
  • Needing to spend more and more time playing to feel good
  • Not being able to quit or even play less
  • Not wanting to do other things that you used to like
  • Having problems at work, school, or home because of your gaming
  • Playing despite these problems
  • Lying to people close to you about how much time you spend playing
  • Using gaming to ease bad moods and feelings

Early intervention has the most positive outcomes so it’s worth checking in with your family doctor if you feel that your child’s gaming behaviour is on the way to becoming compulsive. If gaming disorder is diagnosed (a very small proportion of those assessed receive this diagnosis) a referral to a psychologist will determine the right course of treatment and can vary from CBT to residential detox programs and 12-step style addiction courses that promote abstinence.

If, like me, you have been reassured by the experts that your child does not meet the criteria for gaming disorder but you feel you would like to reduce the hours spent gaming, there are a few strategies to consider.

  • Start by sharing your concerns with your child. Explain to them that gaming is known to be addictive and perhaps read through the symptoms above with them if they are old enough, so that they can appreciate your concerns and understand that this can be a real problem. An open conversation about gaming addiction, its consequences and its warning signs will hopefully allow the dialogue to continue going forward.
  • Agree some gaming rules with your child and stick to them. Make a schedule with allocated gaming time, negotiated together to ensure the child feels respected and involved in decision making.
  • Sign your child up for fun activities after school or at weekends and during school holidays. Engaging with peers doing something they love offline can be a gamechanger.
  • Build daily exercise into your child’s routine. Even better if you can participate too, so the child gets extra attention free from devices. Gaming usually involves sitting stationary indoors, so fresh air and exercise is even more important.
  • Nurture other passions. Aim to identify what else your child is passionate about and allow them to design a program to explore that passion. Maybe your child loves cooking – set a goal and enable them to learn something new. The basics of a particular cuisine or the art of baking, for example. If you can stretch to a cookery course even better. If their only goals are tech related, run with it. Perhaps they could learn coding, programming or build their own PC. Often parents will need to be involved in maintaining momentum and financing for such a project.
  • Be supportive. If your child struggles to reduce their time online or to embark on new projects to distract from devices, repeated telling offs are unlikely to produce results. Positive feedback is proven to be far more effective than negative. Offer your empathy and your practical help (driving them to sports clubs, arranging activities with friends, helping them embark on a new hobby) to enable them to be successful in their attempt to cut down on gaming.

Further resources

You can also check out our Family Support pages under our online Local Directory HERE for local counselling and mental health support practitioners who may be able to assist if you would like further help after reading this article.

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