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It’s no game – how to tell if your child is addicted to tech


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Many parents worry their child is addicted to gaming but are they really? Psychiatrist Richard Graham offers his advice

A child’s intense desire to use and keep using a tablet or smartphone, and the equally intense rage when they are asked to stop, can be really unsettling.

It also leads to questions about whether these devices, or the things we do with them, are addictive.

Parents can so easily feel everyone else is getting it right, but research from Ofcom showed that 41% of parents of 12-15 year-olds struggled when it came to managing screen time. Even 1 in 6 parents struggled with managing screen time for 3-4-year-olds.

Addictive behaviours

We all know how certain substances, such as alcohol or cocaine, can lead some people to lose control over their use of them.

It is not just an issue for the person; the substances themselves have an effect on the body where we have to keep increasing the amount we take to get the same desired effect.

Professor Mark Griffiths studied gamblers in the late 1980s. He found similar behaviours to those using drugs, and that there was a withdrawal reaction – unpleasant feelings on stopping gambling – that was similar to chemical addiction.

This showed that certain behaviours could be addictive, especially when they lead to a positive change of mood. This usually means to feel a bit high or excited, but for others, it means to de-stress and chill – a feeling known to many a Candy Crush player.

How games draw players in

  • Some games, such as League of Legends or CS:GO (Counterstrike: Global Offensive), are not just massive multiplayer games, but are now similar to international football or the Olympics, with gaming tournaments streamed live as if on TV. There are millions of dollars to be won now by gamers and some will pursue this like a top athlete or footballer.
  • For some players, gaming is more social, and for young men, in particular, games can be their form of social media, where they hang out and talk using chat. Someone addicted keeps going with strangers when their friends stop to get some sleep.
  • For others, solving the problems of games consumes them; they dream of progressing through a game, immersed in this world. Certain games have complex and long storylines, sometimes over many editions of the game, and they don’t just enjoy the gripping unfolding of the story, but also the characters they play and relate to. They can become so immersed in this, that asking them to stop playing may not only be not heard, but like calling them from another world. ‘Coming up for air’ may be closer to how it feels for them when stopping their gameplay, and we are learning that if this is too rapid, what once looked like a withdrawal reaction, may be closer to getting ‘the bends’, as divers do when coming up for air too soon.
  • The very speed of the game (such as the 5 minute matches in Rocket League) may be like those highly addictive drugs that work fast and wear off fast… Players have to go back quickly for another ‘buzz’ and the chance of improving their rank. For others, the frustration of wanting to know how the game ends, even if they know it might be 30 hours ahead, may be closer to the days when a thick Harry Potter novel would keep many a teenager reading through the night.

But is it actually an addiction?

So we have a clear list of behaviours when it comes to defining an addiction, and four years ago in the US, Internet Gaming Disorder was introduced as a diagnosis.

But we have a problem.

‘Those playing many hours a day may not be addicted, they may just like doing it and can see no reason to stop’

A lot of young people show many of the behaviours without reaching a level of addiction. What is also complicated is that motives for gaming vary so much, even those playing many hours a day may not be addicted, they may just like doing it and can see no reason to stop.

There are three behaviours that parents should look out for:

  1. Unsuccessful attempts to control participation in internet gaming.
  2. Continued excessive use of internet games despite this causing social problems for your child.
  3. Loss of a significant relationship, job, or educational or career opportunity because of participation in internet games.

In short, these factors indicate loss of control, even when the player knows it’s affecting their relationships and important areas of their life.

What can parents do to help?

Read these tips from Parent Info

‘Knowing what it is that keeps your child in a game can help with the discussions about managing their game time,’ advises Richard Graham.

If your child is playing more than you think is good for them:

  • Set specified times for them to play. Rather than cutting them off mid-game when that time has elapsed (this would leave them with a genuine grievance if they are mid-match on FIFA, for example!) give them a countdown to turning off the console so they can finish what they are doing. Offer them a 10 minute warning, then a five minute warning before they have to finish.
  • Do a deal that you will let them play once they have completed specific tasks, eg: cleaning their room, clearing the table, going outside and playing football, doing their homework etc. Then set a curfew for when they must finish.
  • Persuade them to remove all devices from their bedrooms overnight, including phones and tablets, so they can’t play for hours on end without you knowing.
  • Encourage them to find other interests, outside gaming, with you, with friends, or on their own.
  • Lead by example. When your children are having screen-free time, put your devices down too.

Gaming addiction, one teenager's story

A video from MindEd UK

MindEd for Families was built by parents and the MindEd Consortium of professionals, funded by the Department of Education, in partnership with Health Education England. It is accredited by the NHS Information Standard.

Further reading

Gaming disorder classified as an addiction by the WHO

Gaming addiction: it may not be as much of a crisis as some expect

The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or NCA-CEOP.

Updated: ​May 2018

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