Is my Child Addicted to Gaming? The tell-tale signs and how to help


Let’s be frank, as parents we didn’t grow up with the advanced technology our children enjoy today.

Even if we had a mobile phone or PlayStation we didn’t have access to the choice available today. 

Yes, our children are lucky. So lucky. Being a child in the Age of Technology means having access to whole new dimensions and experiences that we could only dream of as kids.

And that’s the first and most important thing I want to make clear: there is nothing wrong with your child playing online games and using the internet. 

This is not intended to be an anti-internet or anti-gaming article. The internet is a wonderful thing! Aside from gaming, we use it for learning, playing, connecting with friends and family, watching videos and listening to music. 

It’s how today’s world functions and we mustn’t prohibit our children from using it if we want them to have all of the advantages, values and skills they’ll need to live in this digital age.

Imagine, how our children and schools would have coped during the COVID-19 lockdown without the internet? Schools are reliant on the internet to teach children during these uncertain times. 

And gaming can be a positive experience.

Many games are designed by behavioural specialists and can help to reduce stress and anxiety, to improve problem-solving skills, even to get better at multitasking!

If used correctly, digital games can benefit children’s education, as well as their physical and psychological development.

When problems arise

The problem is when children start to scroll through life, neglecting other areas to focus solely on what happens online.

When the physician and filmmaker Delaney Ruston was researching her document Screenagers, she learned that the average kid spends 6.5 hours a day looking at screens. 

The problem is as much a parent issue as it is a childhood disorder, and problems can start from a very young age. It’s not unusual to see toddlers and young children given a mobile phone or tablet by parents to keep them distracted.

It’s not a bad thing to introduce young children to online games, as long as there are suitable and healthy parameters in place to protect them.

This article is about understanding the difference between a healthy and excessive use of online games. The word ‘addiction’ can be very scary to take in, especially for parents and carers who are watching their children retreat into a world they don’t understand.

As parents, we need to know how to identify when our child has crossed the line, and how to help them achieve a healthy balance. 

What is a gaming disorder?

gaming addiction children

Gaming addiction is officially recognised by the World Health Organisation as a mental health condition, yet so little therapy and rehabilitation is open to children and teenagers. 

A gaming disorder is defined “by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”  

What are the facts?

Over two billion people play video games worldwide. 

Gaming is gender-neutral, with 83% of teenage girls playing video games regularly and 92% of teenage boys.

In 2018 a survey carried out by the organisation Internet Matters found that over half of parents worry that their children are becoming addicted to computer and online games.

Parents felt that it was hard to get children away from the screens during mealtimes and before bed, and this was especially prevalent for boys. 

Games, such as Fortnite, Roblox and Minecraft, which are played in groups tend to be the most addictive, because children are playing games and communicating with friends at the same time, making the game more appealing.

Studies suggest that gaming disorder affects only a small proportion of people engaged in online gaming. Global statistics suggest around 3-4% have a problem.

However, a survey carried out by gaming expert, Professor Vladan Starcevic of Sydney University showed that up to 10% of Australian gamers show signs of addiction. 

In Australia, gaming addiction is still not recognised as a problem. But as evidence grows against this theory, experts such as Professor Starcevic are campaigning the government for treatment resources, such as rehab centres to help those affected. 

In 2019, the UK’s national health system (NHS) launched a programme giving access to professional help for children with a gaming addiction, as most private centres limit their resources to adults only and are not set up to treat children and teenagers.

How to read the signs that your child has a gaming disorder

It’s important to identify when gaming has become a compulsion for your child. Officially a gaming disorder is characterized by a persistent gaming behaviour, whether online or offline. 

These are some of the key signs:  

  1. They are talking about a game constantly and play for hours. When they are asked to stop they get defensive and angry, and may even get aggressive. 
  2. They lie about the time they spend playing games and pretend they aren’t playing when they are.
  3. Everyday necessities, such as sleep and eating times become disrupted. 
  4. They seem to get a ‘buzz’ or be on a ‘high’ during game time and experience ‘withdrawal’ symptoms when they stop.
  5. Physical symptoms may start to show when your child is excessively gaming, such dry or red eyes, complaints of a headache, stiffness in the back or neck, or finger, wrist or arm pain.
  6. Gaming can be an isolating hobby and your children may get depressed or lonely, through lack of physical communication.

How is a gaming disorder diagnosed? 

child gaming

To diagnose a gaming disorder, doctors and specialists check the behaviour pattern of the user.

There generally needs to be a clearly visible change in pattern for a period of 12 months. When there is a significant impairment in family, social, educational, or occupational functions, the user may be classed as having a gaming disorder. 

What effects does compulsive gaming have on children? 

  • Children, especially teenagers, may become violent or aggressive when asked to stop playing. And this aggressive behaviour may extend to other areas of their life.
  • Schoolwork suffers
  • Isolation may lead to a lack of social skills
  • Healthy activities, such as sports, reading and creative interests will suffer
  • They may become victims of cyberbullying 

I am worried my child has a gaming habit, what should I do?

The multinational research network EU kids online has put together a list of traits that parents should be aware of which might suggest their child has a gaming disorder.

  • Is my child physically healthy and sleeping enough?
  • Is my child connecting socially with family and friends (in any form)?
  • Is my child engaged with and achieving in school?
  • Is my child pursuing interests and hobbies (in any form)?
  • Is my child having fun and learning in their use of digital media?

If you can answer yes to all or most of the questions above it’s likely your child has a healthy interest in gaming and you have been overly worried about a completely normal level of activity.

If you can’t, it’s time to get into parent mode and find out what’s going on in your child’s online world.

Questioning your children directly on their screen and gaming time is not the best option, and you are likely to come up against a defensive child.

Start by speaking to other parents and compare their activity time and attitude towards gaming. Don’t be embarrassed to ask, most parents at one point have asked themselves the same question.

They’ll probably be glad you asked and want to compare experiences. 

Who should I turn to for help?

If you find out that your child has been playing in excess of their peers and friends, then it’s possible they have a tendency towards a gaming addiction and the issue needs to be addressed by both parent and child.

Early intervention is important.

Share your concerns with other parents and speak to your child’s school. Most schools are well-read on the subject of gaming addiction and they will be able to recommend resources and reading materials that will help you understand the problem.

If you think that your child needs professional help, first speak to your GP, who will assess the gravity of the situation and refer your child to a specialist if needed.

Tips for healthy gaming

child playing video games

Work with your child to create a healthy balance between gaming and other interests, such as outdoor and creative activities.

It’s important that your child participates and you don’t just lay down the law, as they are likely to rebel and find a way to continue gaming in secret.

Set healthy parameters from a young age and agree on boundaries. For instance, younger children only have game time at the weekend, and teenagers may get an hour each afternoon after they have completed homework.

Set these boundaries together and they will be more likely to stick to them.

As a parent, you should be showing an interest in the games they play. If your children are younger, then choose the games they are allowed to play together. Again, make them feel part of the decision. 

Remember there are age limits on games. It’s important your children are playing age-appropriate games.

Find games that can be played in pairs, and ask if you can play with them. Be part of their gaming experience.

When it’s time to stop, give them a period of time to finish up. If you expect them to stop immediately, you will be disappointed and it may end in an argument. Tell them time out is coming up, they have 10 minutes more of game time to finish a level. 

Where do they play? Agree with your children where they play games. Try to make this in a shared environment, so you are aware of what and when they are playing. 

Encourage your children to take part in other activities, including sports and other activity clubs, where they can connect with peers.

Have a regular digital detox. Take your children out of their gaming environment, such as for walks, weekends away, to the cinema (yes, it’s another screen!). 

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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