“Stop playing that game!”
“Put your phone down!”
“Get off the computer!”
These are regular comments in many homes, including mine and those of our friends.
However, through a mix of good luck and perhaps good management I haven’t had to deal with extreme online use or even anything approaching gaming addiction.
I say good luck because I certainly use screens as babysitters when I want some peace or quiet time to cook, do some work or chat with a friend.
But, without wanting to sound like some ‘sanctimummy’, I’ve always limited screen time despite some complaints from my children, and we’ve never had PlayStations in our home. I’ve also actively encouraged other activities such as sport, reading and allowing rooms to be almost covered with Lego and hallways taken over by train tracks. The pay-off for a messy house, I’ve consoled myself, will surely be kids who don’t rely too much on screens for entertainment.
Fortunately, my elder son, so far, has had only brief flirtations with Minecraft and Fortnite, saying he now finds those games boring.
But I have some friends who are possibly more conscientious than me about limiting screen time but have really struggled with getting their very bright sons off Fortnite in particular.
They’re certainly not alone.
As I was working on this article, I heard that the World Health Organisation had late last month officially classified video game addiction as a disorder at its World Health Assembly in Geneva. In Australia, this move has even prompted calls for treatment to be eligible for a Medicare rebate.
Psychologist Brad Marshall, who is the director of Australia’s biggest internet addiction centre at Kidspace, describes the video game loot box – a consumable virtual item which can be redeemed to receive a selection of other virtual items – (I had to look that up too), like a digital chocolate wheel, while I’ve heard others describe it as 'Pokies for kids’.
This is what contributes to making Fortnite and other online games so highly addictive.
Some other reading revealed that in therapy sessions many kids admit they want to put their devices down, but they just can’t. This, of course, means their parents must become the dictators of screen time.
But how do parents do this without creating conflict and resentment?
To ease kids off gaming, Perth counsellor Jennie Fitzhardinge says that from her experience, especially with younger boys, parents should join their kids’ world and be a part of it for a while, then ease them out of it.
“Take an interest in finishing a battle with them, then say, OK now that’s finished let’s go for a bike ride or help with some chores,” she says.
“Wrenching them out of the gaming world creates resistance and can be painful.”
Another good diversion from the screen is to introduce more “green time”, or time spent outdoors.
It was Jennie’s work doing something far removed from screen time, volunteering on the Leeuwin Ocean Adventure, that inspired her to change careers and become a counsellor. After seeing the benefits of this “green time” in young people, particularly youth at risk, she wanted to extend these gains for the longer term.
“What’s beautiful about the Leeuwin challenge is that you can’t do it on your own - you can’t learn every line, sail and manoeuvre, but everyone will learn a part,” she says.
“Everyone needs to work together as a team, while at the same time kids have to be independent and responsible for themselves.”
Like other supervised adventure activities, it is also great for kids who are not strong at traditional sports. While away at a resort with some other boys who are very good at rugby, my elder son, who always avoided team sports, took to indoor rock climbing which got him out of his comfort zone in a way he felt more comfortable, with his self-esteem building each time he reached a new height.
Another option to consider when trying to manage screen time is to establish a family technology contract. These can be completed together – not as a punishment – but a way to set boundaries for everyone, including parents’ use of phones and laptops.
Some of these are available online, a good one can be found through Psychology Today:
Unfortunately for parents, the issue of screen time will be an ongoing battle for the foreseeable future, but hopefully some of the above ideas and suggestions can help ease the family conflicts.
Other reading and sources:
The Tech Diet for Your Child and Teen by Brad Marshall
Jennie@navigatorcc.com.au or 0419 195 568