Gaming addiction: it's a real thing & could be messing with the mind of a child near you
A seven-year-old Johannesburg boy was so addicted to a cellphone game that he begged his doctor during a counselling session at a psychiatric hospital to borrow his device so that he could play.
He is among a growing number of children in South Africa and globally who are obsessed with electronic games, the latest craze being the combat game Fortnite Battle Royale.
Gaming addiction — which experts have likened to substance abuse — has been classified by the World Health Organisation as a "clinically recognisable and clinically significant syndrome".
The classification allows doctors to diagnose and treat a disorder that is causing youngsters with the addiction to perform dismally at school, become withdrawn, neglect their hygiene and not eat or sleep properly.
While the WHO has no official statistics on the number of South African children who have a gaming addiction, Benoni-based clinical psychologist Neil Amoore is treating more children for it — and he says they're getting younger.
His youngest patient is the seven-year-old boy who was admitted to a psychiatric hospital to treat his addiction to a game on one of his parents' phones.
"While in hospital he would try to get a phone from anyone around him, even doctors, to quickly download it so he could play it. He even begged his doctor during a session to lend him his phone," Amoore said.
A 12-year-old patient smashed his Xbox because he wanted a newer model.
"Gaming addiction follows the same pathological pathways as substance addiction. A patient has a need to do it and will do it even though it puts them at risk," said Amoore.
"They will break the rules in order to get to the game."
Amoore warned that parents giving up their devices to their kids to indulge their gaming whims could have an impact on their neurological functioning.
It's up to parents to monitor their child's consumptionMarius Annandale, Fortnite Facebook moderator for SA players
"I am seeing more of this. I see it in my waiting room."
But gaming itself was not the problem, he said.
"We are definitely seeing it becoming more of an escape and more of a way of meditating, almost. And that is an issue that parents have to take note of.
"That's how all addictions can become a problem. When a person uses it to self-soothe, that's when you end up with a problem."
One Roodepoort mother, who asked not to be named, turned to her pastor for help after her 15-year-old son trashed his room and ran away from home when his Xbox was confiscated because he was performing poorly at school.
"We needed divine intervention. We are lost and don't know how to deal with his obsession with a military science-fiction game," she said.
They have pinned their hopes on God saving the teen from the addiction.
"It's been three weeks since he ran away from home and he is still angry with us. He barely speaks to us," she said.
But she is standing her ground on not giving her son access to gaming for a while.
The latest gaming craze, Fortnite Battle Royale, is so addictive that it resulted in a nine-year-old British girl punching her father in the face when he confiscated the game.
The girl had been soiling the family's couch because she did not want to take bathroom breaks.
In the game, 100 players parachute from a flying bus onto an island where, armed with a pickaxe, they have to gather resources and kill everyone to become the ultimate winner.
The administrator of the Facebook Fortnite group for South Africans, Marius Annandale, said that if people could get addicted to "watching TV, football or soapies then gamers could absolutely become addicted to Fortnite".
He added: "However, when it comes to children and how much time they end up spending in the game, this would depend on the guardians or parents.
"The game does carry an age restriction, and as with all things, like TV, smartphones, tablets, gaming consoles, I firmly believe it's up to parents to monitor their child's consumption of these things, make sure they are disciplined in moderation and that the content their children are being exposed to is age-appropriate."
Parenting expert Nikki Bush said many parents battled with setting boundaries around gaming.
"It's little wonder, as increasing miniaturisation and mobility has made gaming more accessible than ever — any game on any device, wherever you are, it's just so easy."
Bush said the goal should be gaming with appropriate content and in moderation.
Dr Vladimir Poznyak, expert of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse of the World Health Organisation, responds to questions relating to gaming disorder.
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