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Are you worried that your child is addicted to video games?

Across the country, parents and teachers are becoming increasingly concerned that children are becoming addicted to video games such as Fortnite and it’s affecting their concentration and behaviour. Sadly this week, a nine-year-old girl was admitted into rehab after becoming so addicted to Fortnite, that she wet herself instead of leaving her screen. Her parents reported that she became withdrawn, agitated and disturbed, but only realised that there was a problem when she fell asleep in class. They later discovered that she had been playing Fortnite during the night while they were fast slept.

In our Mindfulness after-school clubs, we talk regularly about the effects of technology on our developing brains. Many children talk obsessively about games that they play online and find it hard to be passionate about anything else. This is a more common trend amongst adolescent boys than girls but it does affect both sexes. We also see seven year olds talk about Fortnite (aged rated 12) and twelve year olds talk about Grand Theft Auto V (aged rated 18) and this is a huge worry to us. Parents really need to familiarise themselves with what their children are playing online and the content of these games, before they agree to buy them.

Last week, one twelve year old told us that when he plays Grand Theft Auto V, he sometimes smokes a bong until he passes out and he goes into strip clubs where he can give money to the strippers (although he was ‘proud’ that he mainly uses the game to race cars). He told us that on a recent Sunday, he played GTA V for eight hours and only stopped for a quick lunch. That particular day was a beautiful sunny day, where he could have been enjoying outdoor activities but instead he stayed indoors, playing his Xbox.

The addictive nature of video games

Children’s brains are still developing and so not only is the constant exposure to the adult content of these games an issue, but the addictive nature of the game is changing their neural reward structure. MRI scans show that video games have a similar effect on children’s brains as alcohol and drug abuse. They create cravings and the need for more.  Over use is also changing the brain’s reward systems in the long term, making children more susceptible to other addictions in later life.

The World Heath Organisation declared in January 2018 that internet gaming addiction will be classified as a mental disorder. Therefore, as parents, we all have a responsibility to help our children manage their screen time and understand the implications of excessive gaming just as we would teach them about the risks of taking drugs, eating unhealthy food or drinking alcohol.

Is video gaming bad for my child?

We are not promoting gaming as a bad hobby for children. In fact, some studies have shown that gaming can improve focus, concentration and hand-eye coordination.

However, the length of time playing and the content of the game does need to be carefully moderated. We all need to be aware that excessive video game use does have a negative impact on a child’s developing brain. Playing a violent video game also leads to more aggressive thoughts and to greater cortisol levels compared to an equally-exciting nonviolent video game. This would explain why many children exhibit more angry, aggressive behaviour after playing Fortnite or GTA,  as they have escalated into a fight-flight response.

What can you do to help your child?

  1. Most importantly, be familiar with the games that your child is playing and the age-rating of the game. Understand your child’s online life and monitor who they are talking to online as they can play many games with adult strangers exposing them to bad language or risk of their own safety.
  2. Research the effect of video games and prolonged screen-time on the brain with your child. Allow them to see the negative impact that excessive game use is having on their developing brain. Peter Whybrow, director of neuroscience at UCLA, calls screens “electronic cocaine” and in China researchers label screens “digital heroin” for a reason.
  3. Establish rules to limit video game time and educate your child on the health benefits of this. We advise no more than 45 minutes a day for children over two, as after this time, your brain becomes absorbed into what you are doing. It’s a telling sign that Apple’s Steve Jobs didn’t allow his children to play with iPads at all. (The health advice is that children under two should not use a screen).
  4. Be a good role model. Put your phone down around the children and avoid being distracted by social media, emails or messages. Try to eat together around the table without the use of phones or the TV on.
  5. Use apps or a timer to manage screen time if necessary. Along with a five minute warning, there are some apps you can use to limit screen time such as Screen Limit.
  6. Don’t allow video games or computers in their bedrooms. Keep bedrooms a tech free space. Ideally, all mobile phones should be charged over night in the kitchen, away from sleep zones.
  7. Get outside and get social. Not ‘get on social media’ but encourage outdoor activities, play dates and hobbies. It is vital for healthy brain development that children exercise, socialise and use their imaginations in creative play.

Remember there are positive and negatives to children playing video games, but everything in moderation and keep it age appropriate.

If you are worried that your child is addicted to video games, please contact us for an informal chat


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