Is your child addicted to video games?

Mum and child looking at a computer
How do you know if your child’s passion for gaming is getting out of control? We explain how to spot the signs and beat the obsession.

Does your child eat, sleep and breathe Minecraft? Do you creep into their bedroom late at night and discover them playing on the iPad under the bedcovers? If so, you’ve probably worried that they’re becoming addicted to video gaming. But is game addiction really an issue for primary school children?

According to research from Nottingham Trent University’s International Gaming Research Unit, there are six characteristics of video game addiction:

  • Salience: video gaming has become the most important thing in your child’s life and dominates their thoughts, feelings and behaviour. If they’re not playing, they’re thinking about it.
  • Mood modification: your child relies on gaming to feel stable.
  • Tolerance: your child needs to play more and more to get the same ‘rush’ that they used to get from smaller doses of gaming.
  • Withdrawal: your child has negative feelings when they are not gaming, such as irritability and moodiness.
  • Conflict: video gaming has become a source of tension and arguments in your home.
  • Relapse: if your child has time away from gaming – for example, if you go on holiday – they fall back into their old ways as soon as they get back to it.

‘In true addiction, a person shows all six of these characteristics,’ explains Ciaran O’Connor, author of Control the Controller: Understanding and Resolving Video Game Addiction (Free Association Books, £12.99). ‘This is quite rare, especially in primary school children. However, problematic gaming, where a child experiences several characteristics, is much more common in childhood, and can lead to more serious problems in teenage years and young adulthood.’

How gaming addiction affects your child

While video gaming isn’t a bad thing in itself, and can in fact have benefits for your child, problematic gaming is known to have a number of negative effects. Research has shown that playing video games before bed can affect sleep, with children taking 39 minutes longer than usual to get to sleep, and sleeping for 27 minutes less. There is also evidence from the University of Innsbruck that playing violent or antisocial games leads to an increase in aggressive behaviour.

Excessive gaming could also have knock-on effects on your child’s performance at school, especially if they would rather be playing games than doing their homework, reading or revising for exams. 

‘The bigger issue is that gaming – particularly online gaming, which is by far the most addictive – tends to replace face-to-face contact, which leads to children feeling less confident and even fearful about normal social interaction,’ says Ciaran. ‘It can also contribute to a sense of powerlessness, as children get used to being all-powerful in the context of a game and struggle to work out how to make a difference in the real world.’

Spotting the signs

So when does video gaming cross the line from being a pastime to a problem? ‘One of the key signs is your child talking about the game constantly and being engaged with it even when they’re not playing – for example, watching YouTube videos and reading magazines about it,’ Ciaran explains. ‘Everything becomes about the game.’

Your child is also likely to respond badly when you try to restrict their time playing video games, leading to arguments and upset, and may feel anxious when they’re not gaming. In addition, you might notice other signs, such as your child lying about their use of the game or trying to conceal it, having difficulty falling asleep at night and problems concentrating at school, both while gaming and at other times.

Tackling problematic gaming

If your child is becoming obsessed with gaming, don’t panic – there are ways to help them unplug, although don’t expect to be popular! ‘You need to prepared not to be liked for imposing rules around screen time, and to accept that your child is likely to be upset and angry,’ says Ciaran.

The golden rule is to create some limits around gaming and screens in general. ‘Don’t fall into the trap of allowing computers, tablets, phones and TV to entertain your child, with no restrictions on their use,’ Ciaran advises. Instead, set limits that work for your family – for example, you could remove screens an hour before bedtime, or set a timer for the period your child is allowed to game.

Another strategy is to make sure gaming is done in a social environment. ‘Problems often arise when children are allowed tablets and laptops in their bedroom,’ Ciaran says. ‘It’s better to make sure it’s done in a public area of the house, where other people can see what’s going on.’

Naturally, it’s important that you know what your child is playing. This includes following the PEGI age guidance on video games, and being aware of who they’re playing or communicating with if they’re gaming online. Try to give your child access to games that are educational or creative, rather than violent or antisocial – use the same control that you would over their TV viewing.

It’s also important not to overreact. ‘Banning gaming outright is unfair and unrealistic,’ Ciaran says. ‘But on the other hand, don’t use video games as a reward or an incentive, for instance for doing homework or chores, as this sets gaming up as a goal for your child.’ (Find out more about positive screen time in our parents' guide.)

Finally – and perhaps unexpectedly – Ciaran advises that you take an active interest in your child’s gaming, just as you would with other hobbies such as sport or music. ‘People who didn’t grow up with video games are often derogatory about them, and see them as a pointless waste of time,’ he explains. ‘This can be very hurtful to your child if gaming is important to them, especially if you have another child who gets lots of attention and praise for a pastime like rugby. If you engage with your child, find out what they’re doing and show an interest, you’re far less likely to run into problems.’