Where does a healthy interest in gaming become a dangerous obsession?

It can be difficult to limit children’s time on their beloved games. But where does a healthy interest become a dangerous obsession, asks Andrea Mara

Where does a healthy interest in gaming become a dangerous obsession?

Today’s children are the first generation to grow up never having known life without the internet. Love it or loathe it, the digital superhighway is now an integral part of most of our lives.

For parents, monitoring children’s online habits is an additional challenge, and in particular, parents of teens often worry about excessive gaming.

So how do you know when it’s too much — when does it drift from harmless fun to something that looks more like addiction?

“All behaviours operate on a continuum, and gaming itself is not a problem,” says Sheila Hawkins, consultant psychologist with the One Step Clinic for addiction treatment. “It’s an issue when the activity of gaming develops a compulsive component — if the teen can’t abstain from the behaviour, and in more extreme cases may identify with some of the roles in the games.”

The One Step Clinic has seen an increase in referrals for gaming addiction recently says Hawkins.

“Gaming is number five in our order of referrals this year, after alcohol, drugs, sex, and gambling. That said, because it involves young people and because parents are very keen to find help, they tend to look for support.”

So for parents reading this, what are the signs to look for? “The challenge with gaming addiction is that the typical profile of a gamer is a teenager or young adult who may have no job, mortgage, or committed relationship,” says John Byrne, counsellor with the Rutland Centre for addiction treatment.

“Since these are the areas that usually suffer first from an addictive process, it’s possible for a gamer to play at addictive levels for quite some time without it causing any significant problem for them, so they may not realise that their gaming is out of control.”

And of course, much of the behaviour associated with excessive gaming looks like typical teen behaviour. “To a point, withdrawal, irritability, mood swings, defensiveness and isolation are all part of adolescence,” says Byrne. “It’s unfortunate that they are also symptoms of addictive behaviour.

“If your child is preoccupied with gaming to the point where it’s causing problems for them in life or relationships, then you should be concerned and take steps to regulate or discontinue their playing.”

Sheila Hawkins gives some specific markers to watch for. “It’s when gaming interferes with functioning such as school performance, or if they’re staying up very late at night, or unable to get up in the morning, or becoming secretive.

“Also if they give an aggressive or denial response to any attempt to try to talk rationally about the problem — bearing in mind that teens can be quite defensive when asked about any behaviour. If the teenager cannot live without the game and is turning down opportunities to go out, this is also a sign. Basically, it’s when gaming is obsessively and consistently an issue.”

School performance is a key indicator for many parents, says Hawkins.

“Parents don’t necessarily become worried until gaming behaviour is clearly interfering with academic performance in school. We are seeing referrals coming in when children are hitting Junior Cert and Leaving Cert years and parents realise they’ve been spending too much time gaming and not enough on books.”

Is this perhaps simply escapism — just like we want to watch the next episode of The Good Wife instead of going to bed, our kids want one more hour of Clash of Clans instead of hitting the books?

“We all enjoy escapism,” agrees Hawkins, “But it’s when the behaviour becomes a compulsion and if it interferes with functioning, then there’s a problem.”

So what can parents do to prevent children spending excessive time gaming or possibly becoming addicted? John Byrne has some suggestions. “There is no definitive answer to this question, but we can address the risk factors associated with an addictive process. Put your PC or device in a common area in the house to reduce physical withdrawal and isolation.

“Limit the time allowed on the PC or device. Talk to your children about their internet activity and teach them how to regulate themselves and their gaming. Teach your children coping strategies for life, so that they are less likely to use escape to cope with emotional pain. Engage your children in relationships and support them to talk about the challenges of being a teenager.

“Remember that adolescence is a difficult time for everyone; facilitate your child to talk about what they are thinking and feeling and provide them with as much support as they need while gradually helping them to take responsibility for managing their own issues.”

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And indeed, a love of gaming in itself is by no means an indication of addiction, as mother-of-three Suzanne Hull discovered.

“My son Christopher, now 20, spent most of his teen years gaming. He started with Minecraft and then progressed. I never restricted his hours on it.

“I might have moaned a bit, but generally, I left him to it. He spent a couple of years with Minecraft in its early years, sometimes as a moderator to check up on other users when he was about 14.

“He learned coding by himself and talked to loads of people from around the world — like a guy in Eygpt who helped him with his physics homework.

“He made lots of contacts, and he now builds games himself with a guy he met years ago online. They have one game out already — World VR Competition by MTWorlds — and are due to launch their second game. He got a scholarship to university, and wants to create games as a career.” Looking back, she sees the positive side of gaming.

“He was always destined for this. A hundred years ago he would have been stuck in a dead end job. Now he’s being offered jobs in California by companies who need someone to code multi-player VR headset games, which he can do — all self-taught. His exam results at school were not great, but when given the chance to move to a purely IT computing course he exceeded himself. The teen years on the computer paid dividends later.”

Of course, this is just one example and one happy ending — not every teen who spends time gaming instead of studying is going to be a game developer, but likewise, most of them are not gaming addicts either.

“Yes, it doesn’t mean that every child spending more time online than they’re supposed to is addicted to gaming,” says Hawkins, “It’s about the associated behaviours.”


John Byrne of the Rutland Centre gives five signs to look out for if you’re worried about excessive gaming:

  • A preoccupation with gaming – thinking about it more often and finding more ways to game across the day or week.
  • Withdrawing from relationships with family or friends to engage in gaming.
  • Hiding gaming from family or friends.
  • Mood swings, tension, stress, unhappiness, depression.
  • And most significantly; being unable to stop gaming despite his or her best efforts.

If you’re worried about your teen’s gaming habits, contact the One Step Clinic, the Rutland Centre, an addiction treatment clinic near you, or your GP

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