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Is my child addicted to online gaming?

This January, Parent Zone has been investigating the issue of young people and gambling online with our #LetsTalkAboutGambling campaign. To explore the wider topic of digital addiction, Dr Mark Griffiths, professor of behavioural addiction at Nottingham Trent University, provides advice and practical tips for parents concerned their child may be spending too much time playing games online.

Earlier this month, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that it was planning to include Gaming Disorder (GD) in the latest edition of the International Classification of Diseases. This followed the American Psychiatric Association's decision to include Internet Gaming Disorder in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013. According to the WHO, an individual with GD is a person who lets playing video games 'take precedence over other life interests and daily activities,' resulting in 'negative consequences' such as 'significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning.'

Most screen time is okay

I have been researching video game addiction for nearly 30 years and every week I receive emails from parents worried that their sons are addicted to playing online games or that their daughters are addicted to social media. When I ask why they are worried, the reason they usually give is 'because they spend most of their leisure time in front of a screen.' I think this is usually a case of adults thinking a child's behaviour is wrong because they think that what they are doing is 'a waste of time.'

Before a parent starts worrying, I ask them the same three things about whether screen time use is affecting their child's:

  1. schoolwork;
  2. physical education;
  3. peer development and interaction.

Usually parents say that none of these things are affected. If that is the case, there is little to worry about when it comes to screen time. Parents should bear in mind that this is how today's children live their lives and that a lot of screen time doesn't always have negative consequences. I believe that the content and context of a child's screen use is more important than the amount of time spent in front of a screen.

The popular PEGI games ratings explained for parents.

When online gaming becomes excessive

I have spent many years examining both the possible dangers and the potential benefits of video game playing. I have found that the adverse effects of excessive game playing are likely to be relatively minor, and temporary, resolving spontaneously with decreased frequency of play. In some studies, I found that moderate video game players were more likely to have friends, do homework, and engage in sporting activities, than those who played no video games at all.

On the whole, evidence suggests that in the right context, video games can have positive health and educational benefits for children and adults.

However, if a parent is worried about excessive game play, I ask them, does your child:

  1. play video games every day?
  2. often play video games three to six hours at a time?
  3. play video games for excitement or 'buzz' or as a way of forgetting about other things in their life?
  4. get restless, irritable, and moody if they can't play video games?
  5. sacrifice social and sporting activities to play video games?
  6. play video games instead of doing their homework?
  7. try to cut down the amount of video game playing but can't?

If the answer is 'yes' to more than four of these questions, then I say their child could benefit from spending time doing other things.

What can parents do?

Parents can begin by finding out what video games their children are playing. Parents might find that some of them contain material that they would prefer them not to be exposed to. If they have objections to the content of the games, facilitate an open discussion with children about this and, if appropriate, put in a few boundaries. A few aims with children could be to:

  • help them choose age-appropriate games that they still find fun;
  • talk with them about the content of the games so that they understand the difference between make-believe and reality;
  • encourage video game playing in groups rather than as a solitary activity;
  • set time limits and tell children that they can play for a couple of hours after they have done their homework, for example;
  • follow recommendations from the video game manufacturer, such as sitting at least two feet away from the screen, playing in a well-lit room, not having the screen at maximum brightness, and trying not to playing video games when feeling tired;
  • ensure that they have plenty of other activities to pursue in their free time besides the playing of video games.

Maintaining a balanced recreational diet

In the right context, video games can be educational and help children to think and learn more quickly. They can help raise a child's self-esteem and increase the speed of their reaction times. Parents can also use video games as a starting point for other activities like painting, drawing, acting or storytelling. All of these things can help a child at school.

However, it needs to be remembered that video game playing is just one of many activities that a child can do alongside sporting activities, school clubs, reading and watching the television. These all contribute to having a balanced recreational diet.

Further reading:

PEGI games ratings explained.

What is skin gambling?

What are loot boxes?

How to talk to your child about gambling.