Is your child addicted to gaming? Here’s how to tell

Are you worried your child has a gaming addiction? It’s a recognised disorder. Here are expert tips for how to manage it

When Henry’s* parents decided to ban video games on weekdays, they knew he wouldn’t be happy.

The eight-year-old had become so enmeshed in the virtual world of Minecraft, he spoke of little else.

But they weren’t prepared for him to become anxious and “manic” at the prospect of five days without his beloved game.

“He would try to squeeze in as much game time as possible on weekends, and freak out if we went out anywhere,” mum Lucy, 44, recalls.

“He became very precious about his time on the weekends and he would get anxious every Sunday night as he knew he couldn’t play again until the Friday.”

It’s a scenario being played out in homes across Australia — and the world — as rising numbers of children become ensnared in the clutches of the multibillion-dollar video game industry.

Understanding the signs

Experts say most children won’t become addicted, and gaming in moderation can be a fun hobby.

But when somebody loses control over their gaming time and it impacts their daily life it can be cause for concern.

In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognised video gaming addiction as a health condition by adding gaming disorder to its international classification of diseases.

For the addiction to be diagnosed, the behaviour must be severe enough to significantly impair a person’s functioning in their personal, social, family, educational, occupational or other important life area and be evident for at least a year, according to WHO.

Managing gaming time

Henry’s parents don’t believe he has a disorder, and say it’s a way for their neurodiverse son to connect with his friends.

But they did decide to change tack when the weekday ban backfired.

They reintroduced weekday game time but with stricter rules, requiring him to complete chores and homework and engage in family time before gaming and take hourly exercise breaks.

Now 12, Henry has movedon to the wildly popular Fortnite, playing for two hours each night and three hours on Saturday before a “mega session” of seven hours on Sunday.

“The strategy we introduced has worked really well. He knows we value his game time but understands it’s a balance,” Lucy says.

“Every family is different. He still goes to sport and school and doesn’t even think about gaming on holidays.”

The impacts of gaming addiction

At the severe end of the scale, stories are surfacing of young people sacrificing food, sleep, school, socialising and even the toilet in order to play.

Child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Kim Le says game developers are increasingly using “predatory” techniques to hook young people.

In a podcast with Life Ed Australia, he says severe usage over time can impair brain development, including the ability to think critically and regulate emotions.

“If you don’t intervene, it can compromise the developing brain, but there are things parents can do to break the cycle of gaming addiction,” says Dr Le, a former gaming addict himself.

How common is it?

Dr Le says a Macquarie University study found about 2.8 per cent of Australian high school students have a gaming disorder, which equates to an estimated 100,000 adolescents.

But it’s not just young people who are vulnerable.

Dr Le also works at an adult outpatient clinic for gaming disorders, and says in extreme cases, patients are presenting with life-threatening medical problems as they neglect their health.

“So essentially, they’re just playing the game to the point where their body gives in and a medical episode, such as a stroke, will happen,” he says.

“I think everyone has to be buyer aware now. We have to start thinking about games as essentially an online casino.”

The role of regulation

RMIT University cyberpsychology researcher Dr Vasileios Stavropoulos says evidence shows gaming usage typically peaks for teens around the age of 16, when other interests take over.

“The minority of 4 per cent of those who continue having heavy involvement after that are at risk (of addiction),” he says.

“This aligns with evidence regarding other addictions. Those who haven’t developed symptoms by early adulthood, (age) 22 to 24, have escaped the risk.”

The associate professor in clinical psychology wants the industry to be better regulated in Australia to protect children, including disclosing data on hours of usage and the incorporation of artificial intelligence in games.

“If someone is playing for, say, 100 hours a month, this is not entertainment, this is a life substitute,” he says.

Tips for parents

For parents with concerns, Dr Le suggests moving computers or devices out of children’s bedrooms, introducing timers to signal breaks, explaining how their child’s behaviour is impacting others and identifying key times for gaming on a calendar.

He says for some parents it can be a “nightmare”, with many turning to specialists and gaming disorder clinics for help.

“It is tearing families apart,” he says.

“If you’re becoming worried and aren’t sure what to look for, think about how much time your child spends gaming or on the internet each week. Add it up and if these hours equal more than a full-time job, it’s time to seek help.”

*Henry is not his real name

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Written by Elissa Doherty.