If you are one of the many parents who spent the school-free days of July and August trying to prise the kids away from their game console and out into the fresh air you’re certainly not alone. The word Fortnite now has a completely different meaning in popular culture than a period of two weeks, although that could actually be the total length of time some children have been playing the Epic game over this summer, shunning real camping under the stars for ‘bush camping’ (when a player in the game camouflages themselves within a bush) and blowing bubbles for ‘The Bubble’ (the storm in the game or the force field which determines the playing area).

In January this year, the World Health Organisation classified gaming addiction as a mental health condition and according to data from Bark.com, over 5,000 people have sought professional help for gaming addiction in the last year – 30 per cent of which were requests from parents for their children. This is an increase of 65 per cent since 2016.

Kai Feller, co-founder of Bark.com said: “We are shocked at just how many people have sought help for gaming addiction in the last year. It seems to be a modern problem and from working with our counsellors it’s evident that parents are struggling to see the signs. What is apparent is that it’s like any other addiction, except children are more at risk of suffering from it because there’s no age limit like there is with alcohol and it’s very accessible unlike illegal drugs.

“Any parent or carer who is concerned can seek professional help and advice, whether that is hiring a counsellor or going to your GP. Gaming addiction is not something to be taken lightly and can have a devastating emotional impact.”

This magazine asked Dave Postlethwaite, a hypnotherapist and counsellor on Bark.com, what was his experience of parents seeking help for gaming addiction in their children and what the possible outcomes could be if a serious addiction is not recognised or treated?

He replied: “Gaming addiction started rearing its head in the past two years or so from my experience and it’s mainly been fighting games that parents are concerned their children are addicted to. The possible outcomes of a gaming addiction not being recognised is that it hampers social development and decreases interaction in social situations with friends.” But is it really fair to compare children who just love playing on their PS4 or Xbox (and the majority of them do) to other types of addiction when there is still so little research on the health outcomes? For example, perhaps an 11-year-old child who games for four hours a day now, may grow out of it by the age of 13 as the amount of their schoolwork increases and they begin to discover other interests.

Dave’s response is: “Addiction is addiction, gaming is not a substance problem, it’s a behavioural addiction and age doesn’t come into that.”

If you are concerned about the amount of time your child spends gaming then the obvious parental response is to strictly limit the length of their gaming sessions – e.g. weekends only, or after all homework is completed of say 90 minutes or an hour once a day using a timer or stopwatch on their phone to count it down.

However in response to the rising numbers of calls from concerned parents who feel their situation is more serious and they need professional advice, counsellors at Bark.com have put together a guide of what to look out for if you suspect your child has a gaming addiction and what you can do about it.

The telltale signs of gaming addiction are:

  • Expresses extreme anger, irritation and frustration when they’re not allowed access to a video game.
  • Appears depressed and anxious when they’re not playing a video game.
  • Becomes disinterested with schoolwork and other activities that they previously enjoyed like sport.
  • Drastic change in mood when they start playing the game. This can be from calm to excited or from angry to happy for example.
  • Appears to lose control whilst playing the game and expresses uncharacteristic emotions.
  • Refuses to leave the room where their game console is.
  • Becomes more confrontational, especially around bedtime.
  • Avoids showering and neglects general personal hygiene like brushing their teeth and combing their hair.
  • Sudden weight gain.
  • Refusal or hesitation to take part in family activities, such as leaving the house to see grandparents or going for a family meal out.
  • Decline in communication, for example they speak less to family members in family situations like dinner and don’t contribute to conversations.
  • Behaviour at school and home worsens and they start to challenge the authority figures in their life. This can be in the form of fighting with other pupils or siblings, being verbally rude to teachers and/or family members and disruptive in classrooms.
  • School grades start to drop.

What can you do if you suspect your child has a gaming addiction?

  • Seek professional help, either from a counsellor or your GP.
  • It could be that the professional suggests your child enrol in a compulsive gaming rehab programme.
  • Behaviour modification techniques are often utilised to help the individual curb their compulsive gaming.
  • Family counselling is sometimes beneficial and can help get to the root of the addiction.
  • Wellness and adventure retreats are also useful to help the individual engage with other more positive activities again.
  • Be patient, getting over an addiction can take a long time, but consistency is key.

A spokesperson for NSPCC NI said: “Gaming addiction can affect the development and wellbeing of children, while also potentially increasing the risk of grooming by would-be abusers who use digital platforms as a method of directly contacting vulnerable youngsters. The internet is increasingly being used as a gateway to groom and abuse. The PSNI recorded 82 offences of sexual communication with a child last year (2017/18), demonstrating the scale of potential grooming in today’s online world.

“The NSPCC has advice for parents to help their children play safely online, including learning how to mute, block or report material in games. We urge parents to talk to their children regularly about online games they’re playing and to encourage them to take breaks to do other things.”

The NSPCC’s Share Aware Guide gives advice on staying safe online while Net Aware Parent’s Guide provides information on the social networks, apps or games that children use. The NSPCC online safety helpline is available on Tel: 0808 800 5002. Further information can be also be  found at o2.co.uk/help/nspcc/gaming

Children and young people can contact Childline anytime on Tel: 0800 1111 or access help online at childline.org.uk

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