Fears grow for children addicted to online games

Medical and addiction experts, charities and parents are becoming increasingly concerned about the amount of time children are spending playing online games as figures show that UK spending on titles such as League of Legends, World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto will top £3bn this year.

Dr Aric Sigman, a freelance lecturer in child health, said he had heard from a number of doctor’s surgeries that parents were asking for sleeping pills for their children. “Whether you call it an addiction or not, this is an enormous and growing problem,” he said.

The charity Action for Children says that a quarter of parents rank their children’s screen time, and how to control it, as their greatest challenge – bigger than the traditional issues of homework or healthy eating.

“We were surprised it came top. We hadn’t picked up that it was such a big issue,” says the charity’s managing director, Carol Iddon. “With gaming, children get a lot of satisfaction and positive reinforcement, it can build their confidence. But that can make it become addictive.”

Ben Jones (not his real name) a gamer known by his online persona of Onibobo, is part of the growing sub-culture of young people, particularly male, who appear to have become hooked on internet gaming. “League of Legends is my poison. I play it until pretty late,” he said.

His gaming sessions normally last about nine hours and typically run right through the night. Aged 27, he’s been a heavy usage player since he was 15, and it has taken its toll. At college he spent more time gaming than studying, and since leaving he has found it tough to hold down a job. “When I’m playing I know every hour I could be doing something else with my life, but it gives you a weird sense of fulfilment, like you’re achieving something,” he said.

Jones worries he is probably addicted – his gaming in part led to the break-up of a relationship this year – but he thinks he could stop if he really wanted to. “It’s like smoking or drinking,” he said. “It’s a very bad habit.”

The gaming industry is a reluctant to acknowledge any social responsibility, but brands are cashing in on growing demand. Data group Euromonitor calculates that UK spending on games will top £3bn this year, 10 times more than households spend on traditional board games such as Monopoly or Scrabble.

“The games are designed to keep you playing,” said Peter Smith, a director at Broadway Lodge, an addiction treatment centre in Weston-super-Mare.

Broadway has been helping people with drug and alcohol-related problems since 1974, and for the past three years has opened its doors to people struggling with gaming dependency. Smith says that parents have few places to turn to if they are worried about their children’s gaming. There is no telephone helpline, and GPs and schools, while increasingly aware of the problem, have limited expertise in dealing with it.

“If you’re a parent with a 15-year-old who’s playing endlessly, staying up late, not eating properly and then missing school because of it, where would you go for help? There isn’t anywhere,”  he said.

Most experts agree that the escapism and socialisation aspects of online gaming are a big part of the appeal. In League of Legends, for example, there is a clan system whereby players can invite others on to their list of friends, and then play as a group against other teams.

But it is not necessarily a friendly environment. “If you’re playing and make a mistake, you can have four people on your own team screaming at you, wishing you had cancer or your mother and father were dead,” said Jones. “People take it so seriously, they lose touch.”

Children losing touch with reality is the biggest concern for parents, perhaps. But gaming dependency – unlike gambling dependency, for example – is yet to be recognised with a formal diagnosis, and there is limited funding for research.

“We’re under-aware of it, and we’re therefore minimising what the potential problems are,” said Smith.

When pressed, Jones said he felt bad for his parents, who were concerned about the amount of time he spent in his room online. “You can lose a lot of cash, let alone time,” he said. “And it’s not really a transferable skill. It’s a strange world to be in.”

by Rob Walker, The Guardian


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