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Many parents will be familiar with the image of their child hunched over their computer or console, eyes fixed in concentration on the screen, oblivious to what's going on around them for hours on end. If you're concerned about online addiction or gaming addiction, read on for information and support.
A survey by ChildWise revealed that school children spend an average of six hours a day in front of screens (TV, games consoles and online). 43% have internet access in their bedrooms while a separate study suggested the figure for teenagers is closer to ten hours. And it’s not just children who become obsessed with online gaming…
It’s been suggested that between five and ten per cent of the 46.6 million web users in Britain may be addicts. Online gaming is particularly compulsive. A recent report by Sweden's Youth Care Foundation described the extremely popular multi-player game World of Warcraft as "more addictive than crack cocaine". And if this is the effect on adults, what about our children?
These days you can interact, in real time, with other players around the world (or play alone) in games with amazing life-like animation and incredible storylines which advocates say are a great way for children to socialise and compete and are no more dangerous than any other games. Problems arise, however, when hours of playing time start to encroach on other activities, including schoolwork, seeing friends and even eating and sleeping, according to Brian Dudley, Chief Executive of Broadway Lodge, a residential rehabilitation centre in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset. The centre normally deals with alcoholics and drug addicts but has started treating online gaming addicts.
"In my opinion, we’re sitting on a ticking time bomb," he warns. "I began getting more enquiries about online gaming addiction about a year ago - not just from concerned parents of school-age children but from those at University or struggling to hold down a job because of their addiction. Unlike other forms of addiction, such as gambling, there's no national helpline where worried parents can seek help."
As a parent you can exert a measure of control. "If the gaming starts affecting family life, if your child starts losing touch with friends, if you notice a behavioural change (some children can become aggressive or withdrawn) then address the issue immediately," advises Brian Dudley.
Dr Richard Graham, an expert in child and teen disorders and head of the newly-opened Capio Nightingale’s Young Person Technology Addiction Service agrees: "I've been contacted by parents who see their children going into a rage when they’re told to turn off the computer. Some end up having to call the police. What we need are official guidelines now on what counts as healthy or unhealthy use of technology."
Unlike video games where the rewards might be improving your highest score or getting your name on the 'hall of fame', with online gaming, there is no end to the game so there is the potential to play endlessly against - and with - other real people, explains Professor Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University's International Gaming Research Unit.
This can be immensely rewarding and psychologically engrossing. The addiction is caused by the 'partial reinforcement effect' (PRE) - where you’re rewarded often enough to keep playing but not so predictably that you get bored,like fruit machines paying out to gamblers at certain intervals, to make the games more attractive. "This critical psychological ingredient keeps players responding in the hope that another 'reward' is just around the corner," explains Professor Griffiths.
Moderation and common sense play an important role in managing this. "Any activity when taken to excess can cause problems in a person's life. And there's lots of evidence suggesting gaming can have very positive effects," he says. "It can make individuals feel better about themselves and raise their self-esteem as well as being therapeutic in dealing with stress."
If you are concerned about a family member who may be struggling with online addiction, you can contact Family Lives on 0808 800 2222.