How to tell if your child is addicted to video games

Chris Stead 14 October 2016 NEWS
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In the modern era of wants over needs, humans are highly susceptible to addiction and gaming is no different. Too much of a good thing can be bad, but how do you tell, especially when the line between a great game and an addictive game is so hard to discern?

There are many positives playing video games can bring to the life of your child. They can feed their young imaginations like no other entertainment medium as they allow the player to take control and interact in fantasy worlds and stories. They can challenge their young minds to use lateral thought in puzzle solving, or to think up strategies to overcome obstacles and achieve rewards. They can help turn subjects that children may find tedious – like English and Maths – into fun learning experiences while laying the foundation concepts for complex subjects such as Engineering. They can provide children with a blank canvas on which to create and construct whatever their minds can conjure. Gaming can be an amazing social tool, allowing groups of friends to form and bond, and to share enjoyable adventures and moments together. But it’s natural for parents to be concerned about whether their child is spending too much time playing games, be it on the PC or console, or more frequently nowadays, mobiles and tablets. I have three children myself, and as someone who has covered the video games industry for twenty years, I’ve seen plenty of people struggle to find the right life balance with their gaming habits. I’ve also seen every trick in the book that developers use to keep young people engaged with their worlds and spending money.

Your Child’s Brain and Video Games

This article is about understanding how a game communicates with and immerses your child. As a starting point, I’m going to paraphrase a number of studies into the development of the prefrontal cortex of the brain during your child’s journey to psychological maturity, but you can look through some of the studies linked on this wikipedia page if you want to go down the rabbit hole further on this subject. The accepted science, at least at the time of writing, points to this vitally important section of the brain being the last to develop, not fully maturing till the age of 25. gaming The prefrontal cortex is believed to be responsible for planning, decision-making, judgment and reasoning, and remains substantially underdeveloped until your late teens, at which point its maturation accelerates greatly alongside synaptic pruning (getting rid of unused brain bits) and rapidly increased myelination (growth of good bits that improve speed of brain wave communication). Prior to this period the capacity to make good judgement calls is hamstrung by the prefrontal cortex’s juvenile communication channels to other areas of the brain.

There is evidence of a biological susceptibility to not just game addiction, but also game monetisation strategies, in younger gamers

To sum all that up, it means there is evidence of a biological susceptibility to not just game addiction, but also game monetisation strategies, in younger gamers. (Note: And driving fast, smoking cigarettes, jumping from big heights, etc.) This is because the part of the brain that governs the ability to assess the long-term impacts of decisions and to identify gameplay mechanics tiered towards getting users to outlay money is in a susceptible state. clash (1) Let’s use an example that directly ties into game addiction: the effect of offering a succession of short-term rewards for time invested in a game. The term “levelling-up” is one you may have heard before, and it involves the gamer reaching milestones in their play (like defeating a certain number of enemies, exploring a certain number of areas, etc.) that tally up. At certain junctures new content is drip fed to players, from better weapons, new outfits, access to more regions or story snippets. For the player, the idea that they’ll get something in the short-term can cloud the bigger question of, “do I want to play 50-hours of this game to unlock and collect all the best stuff?” or “am I actually getting any long-term value out of this?” There is nothing sinister in providing this sense of reward. In fact, many would argue it’s critical to making a game “good”. In the context of this particular article, where we’re looking to identify why children develop an addiction to gaming, it needs to be understood. The gaming marketplace is becoming more-and-more crowded, putting pressure on developers to continue to find ways to keep their title at the front of players’ minds. So we’re seeing an increase in “endless” experiences (such as open-worlds, creation tools or online multiplayer) and the seeding of additional content for months if not years via downloads, as opposed to story-driven titles with a climax and a “game over” screen.

It's an old fashioned bait and hook strategy that is twice as dangerous

Far more conniving is the monetisation strategies used by some (not all) developers in the emerging free-to-play market, in particular on mobiles and tablets. These directly target weaknesses in human psychology to entice people into making in-app purchases (IAPs) after they have started playing a game for free. It’s an old fashioned bait and hook strategy, but it’s doubly dangerous as it is digitally powered, with rivers of analytical data that show exactly which mechanics will earn money, and using those to direct development strategies. As we now know, the late-blooming prefrontal cortex in children and adolescents make them particularly susceptible to making poor decisions when it comes to these monetisation strategies, as they’re not seeing the full, long-term picture of what is going on. They are unable to identify they are being manipulated, understand the long-term effects and to make a better judgement call - and then whether or not to let it happen in each particular instance. For a full run-down of the tactics free-to-play developers use to get you spending money, check out our detailed explanation of free-to-play games monetisation strategies.

So Why Not Just Turn Games Off Altogether?

While the above doesn’t paint the prettiest picture of gaming, I need to stress that this is merely an explanation of the element in game design that may (not will) cause a child to become addicted to video games, and may also become addicted to spending in video games. For the vast majority of players, this will not be a problem. In fact, the best games immerse you in the world such that you’re thrilled to be able to play more. Identifying that line between being immersed and being addicted is your challenge as a parent, as a child cannot make that distinction.

It’s also worth noting that the strategies developers use for getting people immersed in a video game are not restricted to just the gaming landscape. The concept of “gamification” has spread into most aspects of the modern digital business world. Look at your shopping rewards card and your frequent flyer account, for example. How is your levelling-up going there? In addition, it must be emphasised that games can also nourish the prefrontal cortex with incredibly powerful brain food. Moment-to-moment gameplay across titles and genres depends on rapid and correct use of judgement, planning, decision-making and reasoning, and often gives you the opportunity to try and try again until you succeed. In this respect, playing games can help develop and mature these key sections of the brain more rapidly, and indeed with longer-lasting, stronger effect.

The Key Signs of Video Game Addiction in Children and What To Do

With all the above in mind, here is a quick look at some of the behavioural patterns you may want to look out for with your child. If you notice any of the below symptoms, it on itself may not suggest a problem. However, it is an indication that you should pay more attention to the hours they spend playing games and their emotional reaction to it. And if you see a number of the problems below, it’s a strong suggestion that it’s time to unplug the cable for a while or – as my parents used to do – hide the keyboard.

The Sign: All their stories revolve around in-game anecdotes.

The Reason

Modern video games involve characters and events as deep and impactful as those of film and books. However, as they are interactive, the events that unfold can be unpredictable and many video games find their best moments in the unscripted interactions a player can have in the world. These are often unique to the individual, giving them a sense of being a personal story (not a character’s story). People want to share these moments with others, but of course, they should also want to share the stories about other things that happen in their day-to-day existence. If all the stories around the dinner table tend to be about gaming, then you have to wonder why other things in their life aren’t proving as memorable.

The Solution

Plan more day trips and outside activities to do that your child may like, such as going to the zoo or the beach. Restrict game play to the mornings, so it is not the last thing on their mind when they go to bed.

The Sign: Constant multitasking, such as using a phone, tablet or handheld while watching TV.

The Reason

Many modern mobile and tablet video games ask users to frequently connect to the gameplay environment to manage how the world is developing. In same occasions, key actions are on timers and require the player to wait a set amount of minutes or hours before they can continue what they are doing. In some cases, other players can interact and impact your world when you are not looking and you may need to keep an eye on it so you can react quickly. The deeper a player gets into these games, the more elements they tend to be managing at once - so a glance at your phone can turn into 30 minutes of tweaking and tactics.

The Solution

While at home, you can require all phones to be stored in a location where they can charge overnight. Why does your child need a phone at home anyway, right? Also, you can try deactivating your house Wi-Fi in the evenings so the Internet is harder/slower to access.

The Sign: Does your child frequently have to be online to meet people at a specific time?

The Reason

Multiplayer games are those that you play with other human beings online either competitively or cooperatively, and they are fantastic fun. They can be a very social environment and it’s very possible for your child to form genuine friendships with other players that last years. As such, these friendships come with a sense of commitment. Your child may organise with other players to meet at certain times to play together, and in titles with a team structure, outside of the social experience they will feel a strong sense of having a role in the game and not wanting to let their friends down. Plus, there is a threat of being ostracised or kicked out for frequently not being available when needed.

The Solution

This is a tough one as the emotions your child is feeling for their friends are genuine and there is an element of social standing to consider. In fact, the game could merely be the background or “the town square” in which they meet. Perhaps you can look to set a time each week or every couple of days where your child can “be available” to the team.

The Sign: You child becomes agitated when repeatedly asked to turn a game off, or cannot keep to set curfews like bedtime.

The Reason

Video games ask you to invest something of yourself - time and emotions - in order to achieve certain goals. It has significance for your child and provides a sense of accomplishment. Often reaching the next goal could feel like it is a few minutes away, but then they may fail a challenge and need to try again, or the difficulty gets harder than they expected. Alternatively, they may not be able to save their game until they reach a certain point, and know that turning it off now will require them to start again in the future and lose all their progress. If they are in an online game, it will likely have a set “round time” and if they quit before it is over, they will be punished for being a quitter.

The Solution

Understand the game and what is going on. Is it online or offline? If it is online, is there a time limit to when the game will end? If it is offline, do then need to find a save point first? If its offline, asked them to “pause the game.” This will stop the action and allow them to put their focus on you for this conversation. If it is a online game, it cannot be paused, but they will know exactly how long the game has to go in an instant so you can ask that and come back. Ultimately you want to determine a safe point to turn it off, and then make sure they stick to it.

The Sign: Chronic pain in back, hamstrings, shoulder or hands.

The Reason

Gaming is not a particularly physically active hobby, but it can be physically demanding. Sitting on a conch or beanbag for long periods of time can cause lower backpain and tightness in the hamstrings and neck. Gamers who use PCs also can get a lot of pain in one shoulder - this is referred to as “mouse arm” and is caused by cocking the shoulder backwards while using the mouse for long periods of time. If your child complains of pain in these areas, they’re clearly spending too much time sitting. In addition, you may also notice calluses appearing on the palms or thumbs of your child - this is from extended and overzealous use of a controller.

The Solution

A negative physical reaction to gaming is definitely a bad sign that too much time is spent inactive. However, in smaller children, it can be hard to identify as they far more limber and rubbery. If you’re concerned, request “jog and stretch breaks.” You’re not telling them they have to stop playing, you’re just saying that they must pause the game until they have done a lap of the block and five minutes of stretches. In my house I’m even stricter; the kids are only allowed to play games for the same amount of time they’ve played outside.

The Sign: Irrational reactions to blackouts, Internet failures or update instalments.

The Reason

As mentioned previously, good games see players invested in the experience on a level beyond just entertainment. They feel part of the world. The more addicted a child becomes to being part of the world, the harder it is for them to be separated from it. Modern machines, consoles in particular, frequently require updates. These can take up to half an hour to download and install, which is frustrating for the best of us. If your child becomes irrationally upset by elements that stop them being able to get into the game world - even if it is something like a blackout or the Internet going down - then they may be too invested in the experience.

The Solution

Now that you know what an update is, you can commiserate with your child and show you understand why they are annoyed. You can then suggest something else to do while they wait - for example, how about your brush your teeth or have a shower and get ready for bed first?

The Sign: You’ve begun using “game time” as a bribery trick as it gets you the best results.

The Reason

This sign points at you, dear parent. We’ve all used bribery as a way to get our child to behave - who hasn’t said, “one more peep out of you and we’re turning the car around” before? If you find the best results you are getting come when you use game time as the hinge to swing bribes on, ask yourself why?

The Solution

If you’re worried about how much time your child is spending playing games, as tempting as it may be, never use it as a bribery tool. All you’re really doing is digging a deeper hole.

The Sign: Your child is always tired; at least more than you would expect for their amount of activity.

The Reason

The interactive nature of video games and their tendency to challenge players with deep problem-solving, micro-management and multi-layered strategies, require a highly engaged brain to be played. If your child is beginning to spend too much time playing games and overthinking these elements, then it can be hard to “turn off” the brain to allow it to sleep. In addition, the quality of the visuals and soundscapes in today’s games, as well as the richer character development and storytelling, really invite the imagination to take flight.

The Solution

Try to avoid letting your child play games right up until the time they go to bed. Create a buffer between play and sleep, and if possible a distraction in that buffer. That could be reading them a book, going for a walk around the block or just talking about something like school or an upcoming holiday. Also be careful that your child isn’t using a mobile device to continue playing while asleep - did you know, for example, that you can keep playing a PS4 remotely from a Sony Xperia phone even when the console would appear to be off and the child in another room?

The Sign: There’s been a gradual change in your child’s emotions following time playing a game; wonder and happiness has changed to anger and frustration.

The Reason

As pointed out a number of times previously, we play games because they give us a sense of reward and accomplishment, and because they do so in a way that is entertaining and fun. However, games are also designed to offer you a lot of rewards quickly so that they lure you in, then gradually make it harder and more time-consuming to progress as you get deeper into the experience. Games that do not get this balance right have periods referred to as “grinding.” This literally refers to a section of the game where reaching the next goal has stopped being new and exciting, and has become a grind. This act of grinding, or encountering a difficult section in the process of getting to a goal, can create frustration and anger. If this is becoming a consistent theme, then your child is not identifying this issue and dealing with it.

The Solution

The next time your child is playing the game and getting frustrated, sit down and talk to them about it. What are they trying to achieve? How has it become a “grind?” Ask them if it is worth it? Help them begin to question whether they are actually having fun or not.

The Sign: Your child’s phone is always low on battery.

The Reason

Not every action on your phone uses up the same amount of battery and gaming in particular can really chew up the juice. If you find your child is always getting to the end of the day with no phone battery left, or very little, ask yourself why. They could be secreting away a lot more time than you think playing games and it's especially concerning if that is a game full of in-app purchases as they’ll likely be spending money, too.

The Solution

Log onto the phone’s account using a web browser and take a look at how and when the phone is using a lot of data. If you can see lots of spikes during school hours or during times when you thought they were doing something else (such as playing sport) then you have evidence to confront them and start a conversation about their gaming habits. You can also look to provide them with a pre-paid account with a small data limit, so that they are in control of the phone’s use, but only have limited data to work with over the course of a month.

Other behavioural traits that may signal that there is an unhealthy gaming habit forming.

  • The amount of time spent playing games has begun eating into the time spent doing other things the child used to value as important; playing with friends, sport, socialising, swimming, etc.
  • You can’t name the last time your child saw their best friend, the last time they drew you a picture, or what the last book was they read.
  • Can they tell you what the weather was like outside?
  • Can they tell you what time of day it is and be accurate to within half an hour?
  • Have they begun to struggle keeping up with homework or suffer dropping grades?
  • Are they often found playing games for four hours or more straight?

Using Gaming Concepts To Your Advantage.

I spoke earlier about the concept of gamification; the idea of having a metagame whereby your achievements slowly tally up as you hit goals in a game or across many games, and through which rewards are unlocked that make the experience more enjoyable. One approach I am using with my children is to gamify their game time. It’s a concept they understand, so it’s one that works for them. It’s effectively a similar concept to doing chores to earn pocket money, yet instead of earning money they earn game hours. If they play outside and run around for an hour, then they can play a game for an hour later in the day. If they clean-up their room or mow the lawn, they can bank that time and use it to play a game. Even better, is things that require a lot of investment such as building a cubby house, or a garden bed, or completing a big puzzle or lego building. Break that concept down into levels - when laying a garden bed, for example, the first day you might dig up the grass, the next lay the irrigation, the following dig the holes, etc. In this way the act of doing the garden become similar to the act of playing a game, and may even become the focus. Perhaps if they achieve a big goal - like building the whole garden - you can reward them with a new game. But the hope is that in the act of gamifying the game time, they may actually ask for a new shovel or a wheelbarrow instead, as they’ve been distracted away from gaming and found a new hobby. Gaming can be great for you child, but ideally you don’t want them to think first about playing. It should come as a second thought, or as something to relax to, after earning it via another activity.

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