Sunday 02 April 2023

Fortnite: When does a harmless hobby turn into an addiction?

This article first appeared on Malta Today

Children can provide you with a lot of information about what the latest trends are which they have gleaned from YouTube – the go to place for everything which is current. In fact, when I mentioned to a five-year-old girl recently that I had heard a popular song on the radio, she looked at me with such a perplexed look, one would think I was talking about smoke signals… “radio??!”

I felt like a dinosaur.

But looking at the world through her eyes, I should not have been that surprised. These children have been born into a technology-rich, Wifi world where electronic gadgets containing music, videos, games and nursery rhymes are often handed to them as playthings. It is not unusual to even see babies still in their prams who instinctively know how to swipe a screen the minute they get a smartphone in their hands.

And it was through a nine-year-old boy that I learned all about the latest gaming craze to hit the Internet, called Fortnite, which he patiently explained to me in great detail.

It has been described as mixing elements of Minecraft and survival shooting games, and because it can be played for free, it is no wonder that it has over 45 million players worldwide, with literally millions playing the game at the same time.
Where the creators make their money is through in-game purchases known as ‘skins’ or costumes. There are even tournaments, and some players make YouTube videos of themselves playing the game, complete with a running commentary, which others subscribe to see – the larger your audience the more potential you have for advertising.

In its Battle Royale mode, 100 players fight and the last survivor wins. The element of excitement for kids (and those still young at heart) is understandable because they get to build forts and discover chests which include random weapons they can use to defeat their opponents. Although officially it has an age 12 rating, kids as young as nine and eight are playing it – and yes, this is with the knowledge of their parents. Now, there are usually very good reasons why video games are given an age limit, due to their content and their lack of appropriateness for very young children, but all parents have their own criteria and use their own judgement for what is allowed or not allowed. Some claim the game is not ‘that’ violent or gory, but this is probably because, compared to some of the films which young kids are blithely being allowed to watch these days, it isn’t. But again, one parent’s threshold for ‘acceptable violence’ is different to that of another.

There are other risks which can arise, of course, as with anything on the Internet, when kids play against other gamers whom they may not know. Because everyone has an online name, they might have no idea that they are actually interacting with an adult, with all the potential dangers that may involve, which is why all online activity needs to be continuously monitored.

The greatest harm as I see it, however, is not the game in itself (in fact, having watched the videos, I can perfectly understand the attraction), because there is always going to be some online game which will sweep the world and have everyone seemingly in its grip, until the next one comes along.

What is worrying is the addictive quality of gaming in general, or any prolonged screen time. When I say prolonged, I am talking of hours and hours. From feedback I received when I asked about this, I was told that gamers are playing it between 4 – 9 hours daily and I was given descriptions of children and adults being glued to the screen unwilling and seemingly unable to turn it off. Of course, adults who are addicted are in a category of their own and are free to choose to spend their time playing a game if that is what they wish (whether this interferes with their family life and their employment is another matter). I have even read stories in the media of people unwilling to stop the game to go for a bathroom break and end up literally soiling themselves. Yes, it can get that bad.

When it comes to children, however, the concerns are real, as are all signs of addictive behaviour.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently officially added video game dddiction to its publication, The International Classification of Diseases (ICD). It was stated that “Video games become a problem when someone lacks control over how often and how long they play. Another indication that they are a problem is when the activity crowds out other life interests and daily activities. When gaming continues to increase even when it results in negative consequences including not completing homework, not spending time with friends and family, or difficulty sleeping, it meets the third of the three criteria necessary to support making the diagnosis.”

When a child stops socializing and going out, and is so wrapped up and absorbed with an online game that it becomes a pathological obsession, then yes, parents have a right to worry. It has been compared to heroin and cocaine, and one researcher, Dr Nicholas Kardaras, has even shown how excessive use of technology can stunt the developing brain of a child. Some may point to previous generations which were hooked on Atari and Playstation games, but it is worth pointing out that gaming today has been taken to a whole other level. Dr. Andrew Doan, the Head of Addiction Research for the Pentagon and US Navy, who has extensively researched video games, is reported as saying, “today’s games are a multi-billion dollar industry that employ the best neuroscientists and behavioural psychologists to make them as addictive as possible.”

This is apart from the effect which it has on the child’s behaviour at school and their ability to concentrate and focus on homework, especially if they are staying up until the early hours of the morning to play games. Like anything which is not done in moderation, too much screen time is simply not healthy.

Rather than just alarming parents, however, I find it more productive to come up with solutions. On an international FB group I am on, some mothers gave very useful suggestions on how to limit screen time in general. I’ve chosen some of the best ones.

“Our wifi clicks off at 10:00 pm and my son has to give us his phone too. It’s a battle, but at least he’s no longer waking up in the night and sneaking back on-line. At least we’ve fought for him to have proper sleep at night.”

“Changing passwords for WiFi daily. First:read/chores etc. then screens. High maintenance but it will work”

“You give your kid a fully charged device each day and when it runs out of power, thats it for the day. Depending on what they do on the device the charge may last a long or short time.”

Most of the parents advocated for introducing children to other, preferably outdoor activities instead, which obviously is easier to do when children are still young and it becomes part of their routine.

Above all, however, I feel the best advice given was to show an interest in what your child is playing online – not necessarily by playing (or becoming addicted!) yourself, but by asking them to explain the game and why they enjoy it so much. Even just sitting by your child while they are on the computer while you read a book is advisable to keep an eye on what they are doing.

With or without online games, the most stressful time for families tends to be at that cusp of adolescence when children dig their heels in and refuse to do anything with the rest of the family. All young teenagers go through this phase anyway, but it becomes even more problematic when they have withdrawn into their own world of gaming to the exclusion of everything else. It is a challenge, but parents can use the wonderful tool of the Internet to their advantage by reaching out and asking other parents how they cope and to give each other support. There are also many articles on this subject if you do a simple search. As exasperating as they can be, shutting off contact with teenagers which leads to a breakdown in communication won’t help. And making everything on the Internet the ‘enemy’ is definitely not the answer.

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