A beginners guide to video game addiction in young children

First things first, I LOVE to game! And would happily spend an evening or weekend getting well and truly stuck into my favourite RPG.

The difference between me and my children is that I’m an adult and I’ve learnt to regulate my behaviour. I understand the implications of sitting there for hours on end ignoring my family, of staying up late to finish a game or a level, and I have the tools to manage potentially addictive behaviours before they go to far.

It’s our responsibility as parents to educate our children in these areas, to pass on these tools and perspectives of of the world around us, so that they too develop a healthy appreciation and understanding of what technology can bring to their lives.

Video game designers obviously create games to be as engaging as possible and make the user want to keep playing, and for children these positive feedback loops or reward cycles are sometimes just too good to walk away from.

Now, I stand by the opinion that there’s nothing wrong with your child playing an online or console game – or even a few of them – but if you notice any changes in your little one that concern you, then it’s possible this hobby may be turning into a problem.

I think it’s important to be clear, gaming addictions aren’t restricted to a certain kind of console or game, or even a specific amount of time playing – an hour a day on a smartphone, tablet, console or computer is more than enough for your child to have an addiction. But on the other hand, there are children who are able to play for hours at a time and still be able to walk away without any real issues. It depends on the child, their personality and their mind-set. Video game addicts can’t walk away – the gaming consumes them.

There are a few warning signs that your little one’s gaming behaviour is starting to become addictive:

  • Your child’s life seems dominated by the game(s) – they talk about them non-stop and spend spare time thinking or planning the next game.
  • They play for a prolonged period of time, or religiously every day.
  • They forget basic needs in order to carry on playing (going to the toilet/eating/sleeping/hygiene etc.)
  • Your child’s grades are falling or schoolwork is being neglected.
  • Their social interactions inside and outside of the home are being negatively impacted. Their friendships (outside of gaming) have declined, and family relationships are strained.
  • Your child becomes angry, aggressive, moody, restless or depressed when asked to stop playing, or when unable to play.

Any of these seem familiar? Remember that from time to time children might act in the ways stated above purely because they’re growing up and pushing boundaries. Individual symptoms aren’t always indicative on their own, so look for groupings.

The important thing is to be aware of their behaviour and if you start seeing a pattern, then it’s time to act on it.

boy and girl laying on a sofa playing PS4

Here’s what the World Health Organisation has to say on the subject:

‘Gaming Disorder’ is characterised by a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour (online or offline), manifested by:

  1. Impaired control over gaming (e.g. onset, frequency, intensity, duration, termination, context);
  2. Increasing priority given to gaming to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities;
  3. Continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.

The behaviour pattern is of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning.

The pattern of gaming behaviour may be continuous or episodic and recurrent. The gaming behaviour and other features are normally evident over a period of at least 12 months in order for diagnosis to be assigned, although the required duration may be shortened if all diagnostic requirements are met and symptoms are severe.

A balanced view

Before getting too bogged down in the negative sides of the dreaded video games, let’s also look at some of the cognitive benefits of gaming (there are some, I promise!):

  • Improves coordination. The activities and actions on screen provide a lot of mental stimulation, and to play any game the player has to coordinate their visual, audial and physical movement.
  • Develops problem-solving skills. Every game has its own rules and players need to think about how their decisions will help them advance whilst staying within these predefined boundaries. Some reactions must be split-second, whilst others take time.
  • Improves memory. The player is required to read or listen to instructions and remember them throughout the game, as well as remembering the controls to navigate.
  • Enhances attention and concentration. When a player needs to achieve a certain objective in order to progress, they are likely to pay more attention to what’s going on.
  • Loads of learning. Beyond the cognitive and creative skills that video games provide, this platform is also a brilliant tool for imparting information, which is why many schools and educational institutions use them. Also, depending on the game, you may be able to learn about history, geography, engineering etc.
  • Improving social skills. Online gaming enables players to work together towards a certain goal. Without being able to see their teammate, there is need for constant communication and teamwork to overcome obstacles.

So you see, there are plenty of good things that can come from gaming – IF played in moderation. Age should also be a factor in game choice, as many on the market are not really appropriate for small children, however much they may want to play them!

dad and daughter playing console games

A few alternative ways to manage your child’s gaming…

What you did: Removed their console, phone or computer.

Why it didn’t work: Your child threw the biggest tantrum EVER! They may also still need access to the computer to do homework, so removing it may be unrealistic.

What to try instead: Give them something else to do. Taking away their fun without giving them something to fill the void just won’t work.

What you did: You told them games were a waste of time.

Why it didn’t work: Gaming is giving your child a sense of accomplishment.

What to try instead: Be curious and learn more about the games your child plays. By building a rapport, you’ll create trust and influence. You can also then arrange real-world activities that offer similar types of accomplishment.

What you did: You let them carry on – it’s their responsibility.

Why it didn’t work: Many children are unable to moderate their time.

What to try instead: Support them in improving time management. Balance their day between real-world fun and a bit of game time. If the real world is always boring – missing the stimulus, ‘connections’ and interactions they attain online, who wouldn’t want to lose themselves in a game!

If you create a world that is as appealing outside of the screen as it is in it, then there’s no reason your children won’t want to put down their controller for a bit and have some fun with you. Try different crafts and recipes and adventures… build a camp in the woods, brew up some pirate grog or build your own robot.

Ultimately, as with most things in life, it’s all about creating BALANCE.

Take a look at our 21 practical life-hacks, for some actionable tips in helping you manage your child’s screen time.

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