On Saturday, late afternoon, I went to watch the new Jurassic Park film with family. I like to sit near the front, so we made our way to the third row and I was sat next to a boy, aged about six, with his dad next to him. The little boy was occupied with a big tub of popcorn and dad was on his phone, messaging and scrolling – the phone partially ‘hidden’ under the coat on his lap. Adverts came on, trailers, the main film … it wasn’t until almost halfway through the film that dad put the phone in his pocket.

It made me wonder, what kind of message are parents who do this, sending out to their children? Well, there are loads aren’t there? – my device is more important than sharing this experience with you/it’s acceptable to not be interacting with you …

This popped into my mind this morning, with the news that the World Health Organization have now classified “Gaming Disorder” as a medical disorder, with those affected now able to seek treatment, and with governments expected to incorporate the disorder into their health systems.

This move comes amid increasing evidence of young players suffering from psychological distress and family breakdown as a result of their addiction. On Victoria Derbyshire this morning Kendal Palmar, gave her own experience of how this addiction has affected her family. Palmar’s 15-year-old son is a gaming addict. He has spent 8 weeks in a London hospital, primarily because he was unable to self-care; he wouldn’t wash, sleep or eat and had become totally withdrawn. Now back home, he has missed a year of school, as he finds himself too scared to go outside the house.

On the same programme, this classification of ‘gaming disorder’ was welcomed by Dr. Henrietta Bowden-Jones of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. She is the college’s expert on behavioural addiction, and said it was an important recognition of the plight of an “extremely vulnerable” group of largely young people.Dr. Bowden-Jones went further to say that, although she welcomed the moves to recognise the addiction, she had no faith that children would get the treatment they need.

“There’s no NHS services to provide support for them,” she said. “I strongly believe we should make available, across the country, services annexed to our existing addiction units that can be commissioned to provide help, advice and behaviour modification to this group.” She said it could also entail proper screening and data collection to establish the scale of addiction: “I have calls every day from people wanting to discuss their children and [the video game] Fortnite, and their children and gaming.”

I echo that worry, with our already stretched/underfunded/undervalued NHS struggling to cope. With family/mental health/addiction services being culled – how on earth are our ‘Gaming Addict’ young people going to get the help they desperately need? In reality, they’re just not – are they?

It’s so very clear that this is a growing problem, it’s also clear that game developers aren’t taking any responsibility and, further to this, are actually adding to the problem by incorporating ‘hijacking techniques’ – like group games which are difficult to opt out of. This makes me so very cross, in children the frontal lobes of the brain are under-developed. These lobes have been found to play a large part in impulse control and judgement, making it harder to foresee consequences and easier to focus on instant gratification. The rational part of a teen's brain isn't fully developed and won't be until age 25 or so! We are going to be living with devices around us, on and in us for the foreseeable future – this isn’t a problem that’s going away.

So what are the warning signs to look out for? Here are some of the signs identified by Kendal Palmar, whose son is severely suffering from this addiction.

  • Irritability/anger when told to stop gaming
  • Gradual withdrawal from family/friends
  • Deterioration in schoolwork
  • Dependency – the virtual world becomes reality
  • Inability to self-care
  • Further alienation e.g. missing school

An interesting point is that Ms. Palmar has four other children, none of whom have the same problems. Ms. Palmar suggests that this is because some children are more susceptible to this addiction, something to keep in mind?

Who, what can we do, as parents and carers, to try to prevent our children from developing these problems? Here are 7 tips that may help.

  1. Set Time Limits

Decide in advance how much time you want your child to spend playing games. Most importantly, dedicate one day a week to ‘device detox’. Your child may not like your decision, but you have to be tough and stick to your guns.

  1. Engage in Activities

Play, create, read with and engage with your child in activities that they enjoy – encourage them to do something creative or mentally stimulating, and do it with them. Also get them to help you with simple housework, such as setting the table for dinner, dusting or folding the washing. These activities, done together, will also give you the opportunity to spend quality time with them.

  1. Get Outside!

Encourage your child to go outside and play with their friends from a young age, this will encourage social skills – and get them out in nature, as opposed to doing everything indoors. Sometimes, if children don’t have good social skills, video games can be a safe escape. Also encourage your young child to join clubs and classes, such as football, swimming, dance,  Cadets/Beavers/Rainbows/Scouts etc..

  1. Earn It!

Make time spent on devices a privilege, something they earn – rather than a given. For instance, an hour playing a game might be earned because all of their chores have been done this week or they have spent ‘x’ amount of time reading/doing homework/ For example, you can allow your child to play for an hour if he or she reads a book or does a house chore. This will develop children’s time-management skills and help them prioritize activities. Moreover, they will recognize that they do not have a God-given right to a video game. Instead, it is a privilege that should not be taken for granted.

  1. It’s Good To Talk

The best way to prevent a child from getting addicted to video gaming is to talk to them about it. Explain to your child the negative consequences of addiction. Have an open communication with them so that they’re not worried about sharing their concerns with you. Also, talk to parent’s of their friends – so that they are on board with your decisions and expectations around video game playing, should your child be at their home.

  1. Keep It Public

Don’t keep a personal computer in your child’s room, a computer should always be in a public space in your home so that you can monitor activities. From time to time, have a check and keep an eye on your child’s gaming hours and the type of games they play.

  1. Be A Good Role Model

Your child learns by what they see you do, far more than what you say. If you really want your child to have a healthy relationship with tech devices – have a healthy relationship with them yourself. Put your devices away, especially at family times, play times, mealtimes …

… and if you’re on an outing with your child, the park, the fair, the cinema … – just put your phone away. Please. I might be sitting next to you!

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