With an estimated 2.8 billion gamers across the globe in 2020 (that’s equivalent to 110 x the population of Australia just for context), it’s a hobby, pastime and occupation that’s certainly gained a lot of traction in the past decades.
Harry is just one of those gamers and his story is one at the extreme end – the end of gaming that we would call addiction. Like many stories, his got off to a slow start, but boy-oh-boy did it pick up pace, ending up in a condition, just like many addictions that took over all facets of his young life.
Let’s start at the beginning
By mid-primary school, Harry had got the Minecraft bug. He was a little chap who threw himself into things completely, and rapidly Minecraft became his world. He talked about it, wrote about it, thought about it, and made up games in the playground about it – and asked to play it – often. Harry also loved to play hockey, with weekday training and weekend matches which he anticipated with excitement.
In most ways, he was a little boy not very different to any other child his age. His mum did notice though, that periods of gaming were often followed by poor behaviour. Harry would be irritable and resistant in the hours after coming off-screen, difficult to engage in conversation, less than cooperative and often put his hands over his ears to block out voices when he couldn’t process any more.
By the end of primary school, Harry’s gaming habits had changed, as had his choice of games to play. Despite his mum being worried about the level of violence involved in some of the games, Harry assured her that everyone his age was playing them and that it was nothing as it was only stylised characters enacting the shooting, stabbing and blowing up.
Harry wasn’t allowed to play on weekdays, but more often than not he was to be found sneaking onto his computer, and if he couldn’t play, he watched others playing instead. Harry asked to play after school at a particular friend’s house often, with a much later discovery being that both boys spent all of those hours gaming unsupervised.
And over this time, Harry’s behaviour got progressively worse. At home he was challenging to manage on weekday afternoons, always asking for, ‘just one game’ and becoming disruptive when denied; kicking and slamming doors, throwing books and toys and yelling loudly over the top of his mum – telling her that she was the only parent in the world who was so strict. He refused to participate in hockey training unless he was allowed gaming time to make up for it. At a loss, his mum preferred some outdoor active time to none, and soon found herself coaxing Harry with the promise of an hour after school or additional time on the weekend.
By Year 9 and Harry’s gaming was out of control. Attendance at school was inconsistent, and on most days Harry could be found in internet cafes, sitting outside the front of his friends’ homes, connected to their internet, or at home having snuck in after his mum left for work.
Harry wasn’t achieving passing grades at school and repeated interventions by the school left his mum feeling inadequate and unequipped for the job of helping Harry back to functional home and school behaviour. Increasingly, Harry spent most of his time at one mate’s house – where parental supervision was low and attendance at school not prioritised. He lost friendships and rarely saw his extended family, even though there were many efforts to engage Harry and to incentivise his home and school behaviour.
Harry’s relationship with his mum was strained to breaking point. He became violent on occasions making home an unsafe, strained place to be.
Let’s unpack gaming addiction
Yes, it’s official, online gaming is a diagnosable behavioural addiction. A preoccupation with gaming, having withdrawal symptoms when not gaming, having to spend more time gaming to feel satisfied, being unable to quit, giving up other activities, deceiving friends and family members as to the extent of gaming – these are some of the key indicators that gaming for fun has taken a turn into something worrying.
Gaming disorders are not something every parent of a gamer has to worry about – not all gaming is bad or leads to an addiction. Like everything in childhood, gaming in moderation can give a child some great chill out time, build relationships with others and increase critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
Harry’s trajectory towards addiction had some of the classic red flags listed above – which are cause for concern if you have an over-avid gamer in your home or class. Like any addiction, gaming disorder takes up lots of space and focus, and squeezes out a child’s (or adult’s) interest and motivation to do much else, changes mood and the ability to self-regulate, and generally changes behaviour when there’s anything outside the gaming world needing attention.
Where did it end up?
Harry is now 19. He’s been through extensive therapy and is getting his adult life on track. Leaving home at 15 after violently assaulting his mother, Harry lived on the streets and couch-surfed where he could, becoming estranged from his family and most of his friends. He had reached rock bottom.
On the edge of life, Harry called a support line, and was guided to reach out for the right help. In therapy, despite early resistance to accepting his diagnosis and the need for a complete lifestyle change, Harry slowly acknowledged the huge impact gaming had had in his life and made continual small changes that collectively and progressively turned his life around.
What does that mean for parents and educators?
Knowing your child and their propensity for jumping into something obsessively and completely is most certainly a warning point. By nature, the child given to adopting something new and becoming obsessed, would indicate that the highly programmed, alluring world of gaming could potentially become a hazard without strong and protective boundaries right from the start.
Managing time gaming is essential. It really doesn’t matter what other families allow in terms of weekday and weekend access, or their allowance to play games that may not be age indicated or suitable. Your home, your rules. Knowing your child, it is 100% OK to choose what you know is right for them over being a popular parent. Gaming is fun and relaxing – to a point – but it can be a very slippery slope for the child who struggles to withdraw out of that world when the game is over.
And learning about your child’s gaming world and appreciating their enthusiasm for it and guiding their interaction with it – is another essential. Knowing how long an average game takes helps you to manage time effectively. Knowing how games work and how your child is incentivised to stay, and play guides your conversations with your child about what to look out for and how to avoid those pitfalls.
We’re all still learning about digital life and its pitfalls, so, without becoming alarmed, become educated and aware and take early action if you’re concerned.
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