The screaming behind the door was frightening. Turned out the kids were just playing a game, shouting down the microphone excitedly to other online players. It went on for hours. The game was, I discovered, Fortnite Battle Royale, a free survival war game that had recently come out, and is now probably the most popular video game in the world.
Anyone with boys aged between around twelve and seventeen may too be despairing at how Fortnite has invaded their lives overnight, creating moody or zombie-like teens. Gamers are greeted with a rush of dopamine when they play, especially in the teenage years. The release of dopamine prompts the brain to crave more, thereby turning them into potential addicts.
The new game by Epic was launched as a standalone title, separate from the original Fortnite, which first came out last July. While the original cost money and was only available on PC, this later version is free and is available also on Xbox and PlayStation — hence the surge in popularity. Its overall player base has reportedly passed 45 million and that was before its recent launch in China. It is continuing to grow in popularity as developers introduce new content to the game including weapons, map locations and cosmetic items to keep players continuously interested, or rather, addicted.
This month Epic introduced Fortnite Season 4, its Twitter feed enticing gamers with the slogan “Brace for Impact”. Following its release, Immanuel College deputy head Beth Kerr, wrote to parents offering advice on how to handle the game.
She listed some of the some of the symptoms for parents to look out for, that indicated “a less than healthy relationship with gaming”. These include:
- Unusual preoccupation with the idea of getting back online to play;
- Self-imposed isolation in order to guarantee uninterrupted play;
- Feelings of irritability and restlessness when not playing games;
- Lying about the amount of time spent gaming;
- Persistent headaches caused by too much screen time;
- Carpal tunnel syndrome caused by excessive use of gaming devices;
- Diminished personal hygiene and poor diet;
- Persistent fatigue due to lack of sleep.
Rachel Vecht is a parent of four, a teacher and consultant. She says gaming companies hire the very best neuroscientists to design games to be as stimulating and arousing as possible. There is also research that shows games can neurologically damage a young brain in the same way as cocaine. “The rush of adrenaline and dopamine they get from playing a game means reality becomes boring so kids can lose the ability to focus and even feel anxious or depressed.”
One of the commonly asked questions is how many screen hours should be allowed. “I am very reluctant to judge or be prescriptive to any family as each parent must do what they feel comfortable with, in line with their values. The number of hours permitted very much depends on the age and temperament of the child.”
Vecht believes that as parents we have a “fundamental responsibility” to understand and monitor our children’s behaviour online. That means teaching them how to “self-regulate” throughout their lives. “The best way to achieve this is through communication and connection rather than coercion and control.
“I advise parents to sit down together with their child and have an open conversation about what they use screens for, to establish some very clear screen rules/boundaries. This is the time to also determine what is the reward for keeping to the rules and the consequence for not.”
Jamie Rubin, a mother of three, is talking to educators and parents about ways to build children’s “digital resilience”. She is working on devising a cross communal plan — through a guidebook — for those kids, like her youngest child Eden, who will be starting secondary school in September.
“It is not just about educating children,” says Rubin. “It is well worth the investment for parents to learn more about the issues related to technology and screen time.
If many parents were on the same page it would really help with the battle screen addictions, social media, iphones, gaming etc.
“We can’t deny our kids access to cell phones and screens, like it or not it is part of ours and our children’s lives.
“Creating healthy limits and habits are as important as communication and trust.
“It is our responsibility as parents to make them as prepared as possible to use technology responsibly.”