Take control of the latest gaming drug before it goes too far.
Four moms are standing by after a recent seminar I gave nervously waiting for a magic answer from me on how to handle their kids’ new drug–Fortnite.
“It’s all they talk about,” one mom said with an emotional tone in her voice.
“At first it was okay, but now they are quitting all their other activities. My oldest doesn’t even want to get his driver’s license, let alone a summer job,” a mom of two teen boys said. “I’m very concerned about my son and his friends with this Fortnite game. They are all planning on playing in college to ‘stay in touch.’ I feel like we are losing our son over this.”
My heart goes out to each of these moms because I know exactly how they feel. I have lived through my oldest of four’s gaming addiction, and I will never forget the familiar pain. It is a conflict unlike anything I had ever experienced in parenting because it is so confusing. Culture says games are great for kids, but your son is not “doing great.” Instead, it seems that the game has taken everything that was good in his life (including his real friends) and is holding him hostage.
Let’s start with a few blunt facts:
- Playing video games where the objective is to kill people is never a good idea. Yes, in Fortnite, he is killing human avatars; it is virtual violence.
- Kids crave low-effort, high-reward activities over hard work. Fortnite easily gets in the way of hard work and other important things.
- Gaming changes your child’s brain. Like a drug, gaming is not a neutral activity. Brain chemicals are being altered; this is more serious than most parents realize.
- Little gamers grow up to be big gamers. Watch your child’s gaming habit closely–it will shape his future. Rarely will they outgrow this habit.
Five Myths Parents Believe
At last, we thought we found a game that is okay. Our kids love it; it is “social,” and some say it may even be good for our kids–or at least not too bad. The myths do sound convincing:
1. It’s just like a cartoon. And there’s no real blood.
Blood or no blood, this game is violent. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ policy statement on Virtual Violence, “Cartoon violence can seem very real, and it can have detrimental effects. Furthermore, first-person shooter games, in which the killing of others is the central theme, are not appropriate for any child.” It continues: “Video games should not use human or other living targets or award points for killing, because this teaches children (up to 18) to associate pleasure and success with their ability to cause pain and suffering to others.”
Have you played Fortnite? You should always know what your kids are playing. Don’t bother with the trailer. Watch an actual teen play and see firsthand what we’re talking about. Violence is violence, and research tells us that when your child directs the violence himself, aggression is learned and rewarded, while empathy is lost. Need more info? Watch Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman discuss the effect of violent visual imagery in kids.
2. He won’t have any friends if he doesn’t play.
Most parents can’t even imagine limiting Fortnite. Many believe that online friends are a safe substitute for dealing with real-life friends for their shy, socially awkward sons. But nothing could be further from the truth. His social awkwardness will get worse without real life practice. If your child’s only friends are in his Fortnite game, he is not balanced socially and may be headed for trouble. Science tells us that practicing in-person social connections is a must for teens. These connections are very different from online interactions. When social experiences move primarily online, kids miss out on building critical human connections skills: reading body language and facial cues, as well as working through the give and take of relationships and real-life conflicts (as opposed to those which arise in the game). Let’s face it, learning how to make real friends is hard and takes work!
Getting together in-person to play Fortnite does not meet the face-to-face requirement for a teen either. In this modern gaming world, something as simple and necessary as hanging out with friends, focusing on each others conversation, and being present can’t be taken for granted any longer. Just because many of your child’s friends play Fortnite doesn’t mean that your child has real friends. Be sure that the game itself isn’t becoming his “friend” instead.
3. He will learn strategy skills.
What does this really mean? Does video game strategy somehow convert to valuable real life strategy? From my years of experience raising a gamer, I think not. Deep down, you know he needs to learn more strategy around his homework, cleaning his room, and getting a real job much more than learning “strategies” from Fortnite. Video game strategy does not help much in real life. I am not sure why parents keep thinking this is a valid reason to allow their child to play. He is being entertained. He is not learning.
4. Gaming leads STEM development.
This myth says that when your child is on a screen, he will be more engaged in computing, which leads to science and engineering. Even seasoned gamers will easily admit that their gaming is not making them more interested in science or engineering. In fact, thanks to the persuasive design elements in today’s games, the more you play, the harder it is to get off. It is safe to say that playing more video games leads to–wait for it–playing more video games!
5. Gaming develops his creativity.
Game designers are not concerned about developing your child’s creativity. Like rats in the research labs, your kids are reacting to a predetermined program and preset algorithms. They are not “creating” anything; the game designer already did that for them. Creativity and innovation comes from imagination, original ideas, and hard work. These things are not found in a video game and certainly not in Fortnite. Building something with their hands, getting involved in art, music, cooking, etc, are creative. Shooting people on Fortnite is not being creative.
Understand the game hooks.
It’s just a game, so what’s the problem as long as he keeps it in balance? Fortnite, like any other slot machine (Oops! I mean video game) is very difficult for a child to keep in balance. It is designed that way. Remember, that game design companies use addiction science to keep the player playing. The main objective in the developer’s mind is to get the player to respond in a certain way. In 2001, certain elements of addictive gaming were discovered and published in a column entitled “Behavioral Game Design” by Duke University graduate John Hopson. Listed below are the results of proven hooks for highly addictive games:
- Incentivizing playing through reward (unlocking new levels, receiving tokens, obtaining coveted objects).
- Variable-ratio rewards (randomized incentives spread throughout the game such as a hidden sack of treasure).
- Increasing the rate of reward over time (frequent rewards at first then extending the intervals for longer periods).
- Punishment for avoidance (taking away rewards for not playing every day or breaking streaks).
Is your child addicted to Fortnite?
“This game is so addictive. I am lying to my parents. Skipping school. Staying up all night playing. This game owns me. Exactly like crystal meth or crack. Can’t stop. Have no life anymore. Beware. Battle royale games like this one are dangerous.”
~ 15-year-old describing Fortnite
Is your child playing during school hours on his school screen? Do you think he is playing on his phone, too? What about in the middle of the night, on the school bus and every time he goes over to a friend’s house?
We don’t like to think that our kids can get addicted to gaming to the point where they have to go to treatment centers. But could your son be headed down that path? The sobering truth is that over 3 million kids have a gaming addiction. I would bet that that number is higher now as the science for addictive game design is growing, making newer games including Fortnite more addictive than older games.
Take this quick overuse test.
Dr. Douglas Gentile, a lead researcher for many gaming studies, suggests a gaming survey or quiz to determine if your child is in trouble. Below is a quick list:
- Is it the only thing that puts him in a good mood?
- Is he unhappy when he is forced to unplug?
- Is his use increasing over time?
- Is he sneaking around or lying to get more game time?
- Is Fortnite interfering with family time, friendships or school work?
Here is a parent version:
- Can your child list three things he likes as much or more than Fortnite?
- Does he game on a regular basis–every day, for example?
- Are all of his friends on Fortnite?
- Or my personal favorite: Does your child get furious and have meltdowns when you take his game away? If he does, then you have a problem on your hands. No child should react in an unbalanced way if a video game is taken away. Period. This lack of self-control is the exact reason why regular game play is bad for many kids. Your child is not immune to the addictive elements.
Oh no! He clearly has a problem! What do I do next?
It’s time to step in–just like a good coach–and take some necessary time off. You have two choices:
- Limit the time he is on the game (but it is very difficult to limit an addictive activity).
- Remove the game–by far the best choice.
Why is it so hard to limit?
- You can’t change the addictive hooks of Fortnite. You can’t make it less compelling. Video games are not a neutral activity. You can’t compete with the neuroscientists and engineers who write these games with the intention to keep your child online as long as possible.
- You can’t change brain science. What we know now that we didn’t know even 10 years ago, is the connection between game play and neuroscience. One way gaming changes your child’s brain is by overstimulating it. You cannot change the amount of dopamine and adrenaline produced by interactive game play and these chemicals. When out of balance, they have a detrimental effect on your child’s developing brain.
- You can’t change your child’s maturity by having a conversation or negotiating a “middle ground.” Intelligence does not equal maturity. No matter how many times you tell him, no matter what the consequences might be for his actions, he will still try to push your limits. Developmentally, his frontal cortex, which he needs for self-control and limit setting, is not yet fully developed. Simply put, he needs you to take the lead for what is best for him.
- You can’t change your child’s age. According to the ratings set by the game company itself, no child under 13 should be playing Fortnite. The online language is enough to convince you of the reason for this. Would you let your child hang out with an older teen or grown adult for peer level entertainment in the real world? Such influences are far worse online.
How do I remove Fortnite and get his life back?
Like any other addiction, you must remove the source. Don’t waver. Make a firm decision. We have found that going cold turkey is better than a weaning process for many reasons. The ease of this process is generally dictated by his age and how long he has been playing; of course, the older he is and the longer he has been playing the more challenging it will be. Victoria Dunckley, M.D., shares a wonderful 4-week reset program in her book Reset Your Child’s Brain. If you are afraid of what your child might do if your take his game away, call a therapist first.
- Attitude is everything. Your attitude as a parent is the most important first step for reversing a gaming problem. You must take back your leadership role. Like a good coach, you evaluate the situation, go back to the basics and make adjustments. You adjust his schedule so that he takes the necessary time off the game to reset his habits. The basics include focusing on getting off the controlling game long enough to rediscover life balance, responsibilities, work on relationships and develop other interests. We need to quit pretending that the game is good for him, that it’s healthy downtime or that it is preparing him for real life.
- Smile and be happy. A very wise sports coach once told me never to get on my child’s emotional rollercoaster with them. Instead, she told me to be happy, smile a lot and be happy some more when my child was going through her ups and downs. Boy, does that work! Do not give in to the drama of your child’s video games. This is just a game, so let’s keep our eye on the ball and not let this “virtual drug” bring all of us down.
- Change how much power you allow the game to have in your home. Is Fortnite holding your whole family hostage? Change your mentality around the game. Kids don’t have to play video games to survive! Fortnite does not need to run your house or their lives. Use humor and any other parenting skill you have to defuse the tension.
Make a Plan
- Keep a log of his time on the game. It is impossible to manage video game play if you have no idea how much time is being spent on it. If you decide to remove it–the best choice, for sure–you have to know how much time will need to be filled with other activities. Log every minute for two weeks. Be honest. You and your child will be surprised at the result and hopefully motivated to kick the habit. Remember, this includes play at other houses, time even just talking (obsessing) about the game, time on YouTube watching other kids playing it, playing mobile Fortnite on the phone when at the grocery store, etc. Count every minute spent.
- Partner with a few families. Finding a group of two to four families who are also interested in taking a break from Fortnite will make it easier on you. Once your child realizes his friends are not playing either, it will be easier to get together with those families and plan non-gaming social gatherings and activities. For example, take turns hosting these activities at individual houses during the summer. Each parent picks an activity (art, sports, pool, outing, etc.) to host all the kids one day each week.
- Plan a daily schedule. This is a daily hour-to-hour schedule that includes chores, exercise, reading, practice time (music or sports), etc. Kids do really well when they have a schedule to follow. You are in charge of a well-planned schedule for a period of time until he can do it on his own. Screen-free time with friends must be part of their schedule or it won’t happen.
- Introduce new activities. You have the power to make real life more exciting than the game. See our list of activities here. This will take a lot of work on your end, but it is worth every minute. Introduce hobbies that get him outside, in front of real people, and preferably building or creating something.
- Exercise is mandatory. Increasing time spent exercising works well for boys and girls, but especially for boys. Gamer kids need more physical activity than they are getting. Begin to replace game play with a workout routine. Running, weight training and workouts are all great ways to replace his sedentary game habit. Get creative, make a chart, encourage him and invite friends over to participate. Parents can get involved, too.
- Hard work comes before entertainment. Chores and hard work are more important than any game out there, but hours a day spent on addictive entertainment will drain your child of the motivation needed for hard work. Older teens need to get a job! During the school year, they need a part-time job. During the summer, they need a full-time job (or two part-time jobs). Look for physical jobs that wear them out. Young people are built for physical activity! Hard work will increase their feeling of real accomplishment and sense of purpose, decrease their depression, and increase their social skills.
In summary, if Fortnite is balanced in your home, making your child a better person, and increasing his grit and motivation for healthy in-person social relationships and habits, then you are good to go. However, if you can say that Fortnite is not bringing out the best in your kids, if they are slacking in other areas of life, if it is causing conflict in your home or if you have a gut feeling they are overdoing it, then it is time to pull the plug. Like a good coach, commit to reverse this losing season. With some hard work and fun, you can get your team back on track before you know it!
If you want to rescue your kids from Fortnite there is still time. Read The ScreenStrong Solution for tips on removing addictive screens from your kids. Watch our Facebook Live videos, Has Fortnite Gone too Far and Solutions for Managing Fortnite this Summer and be sure to like us to stay up-to-date on how to manage our kids’ media usage.
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