I do blame the parents if their children are video game addicts

Boy playing videogames on a handheld console
Boy playing videogames on a handheld console

How do you know if your child is addicted to video games? According to the NHS, symptoms include constantly wanting to play the game; feeling irritable and restless when not playing; tiredness, headaches or hand pain from too much screen time; not seeing their friends as often as they otherwise might; and wanting to skip school so that they can game instead. By which measure, practically every child I know is at least borderline addicted. And quite a few of the parents, too.

Having trouble tearing yourself away from a screen, whether it’s a console or a smartphone, is now normal across all age groups. But there are, of course, degrees of trouble.

The first NHS centre for gaming disorders revealed this week that it has treated 745 patients since it opened in 2019, of which 327 were referred last year. Most of the gamers were boys, with an average age of 17. Before treatment, they were playing for up to 14 hours a day, often not sleeping, showering or brushing their teeth because they had no time for anything but gaming.

I know what you’re thinking. I’m thinking it too. But Prof Henrietta Bowden-Jones, director of the treatment centre, is careful not to blame the parents. “By the time they see us, parents have tried everything,” she insists. If they attempt to restrict screen time, the addicted child will often resort to violence, or self-harm. “I have seen a couple of children trying to strangle themselves with their own hands, saying they’d rather be dead than not game… The police are getting called out regularly to these homes.”

It sounds awful. I really do sympathise. But also, I don’t.

Lord knows it’s hard enough being a parent in the digital age. On top of all the traditional labour and worry that comes with the job, we now have to help our children navigate a vast, new and constantly evolving online world. We are hopelessly ill-equipped for this task, being ourselves less tech-savvy than our young. We are also hypocrites, glued to our own screens while ordering the kids to come off theirs.

Banning screens outright is too draconian, since it means cutting your child off from their generation’s primary source of culture and communication. And compared with some online activities (scrutinising thigh-gaps on social media, or gazing moronically at TikTok videos), gaming can seem positively wholesome. It is fun, challenging and – when played with friends – sociable.

Allowing a bit of screen time, but not too much, is harder than it sounds. It means constant negotiation, irritation, recrimination, guilt and rebuilding of boundaries, on both sides. It is work – a whole new burden of work, inflicted on families by tech companies who deliberately make their products as addictive as possible.

I resent every minute I have to spend cajoling my children off their gadgets. But I do it because I’m their mother. If I don’t enforce non-digital time for them – time to read, see friends, run about or just stare sullenly into space – who will?

Knowing this is the right thing to do doesn’t make doing it any less irksome. Which is why I find it hard to muster much sympathy for those parents who don’t. It’s no good waiting until your child is a fully-fledged addict. You have to fight this miserable fight from the start.