If you’ve found yourself tearing your hair out trying to extricate your children from their devices, you’re not alone.
“I’ve got three boys and it does my head in,” says Mathew McMillan, addiction clinician and director of Addiction Advice Ltd.
Excessive screentime or excessive gaming are what McMillan describes as “an emerging youth mental health issue”.
McMillan is typically approached by the parents of 12 to 17-year-old boys, some of whom are gaming 12 to 15 hours a day.
Problems around screentime, he said, was an issue that is going to be affecting middle class working families more and more.
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“If you’re a two parent household, it’s difficult because often you’re got different thoughts on that,” he said.
“You are also both bloody busy trying to earn an income, you get home and you’re having to combat all that stuff. It’s really hard to sort that out.”
The problem was, was that there was “nothing out there” for them – no kind of referral pathway to follow like other mental health issues.
“It’s almost ‘Well, they just need to sort that out’, like, it’s not a real issue, that’s not a real addiction.”
McMillan said work was being done to look at the crossover from gambling and gaming at a bureaucratic level – “and I’m kind of like, actually, great if you can do that, but hurry up and do something”.
It’s not practical to remove screens altogether – especially since they’re needed for school work and socialising.
The first step, he said, was to identify if it was in fact a problem.
“If you constantly have to say, hey, look, it’s five minutes to get off, and they don’t get off, it’s an issue,” McMillan explained.
Parents needed to think it through and be very clear about what it was that was upsetting them about their children’s behaviour, he said.
“Is it just that they’re on their screen? Or is it part of the fact that they’re actually not contributing to the family, that they just disengage, they’re not helping out, they don’t have any other activities?”
If you took the phone from them and they then went off to play on the trampoline or draw, for instance, “they’ve got a quite a good balance”, he said.
For parents of autistic youth, controlling screen time and encouraging things like sport or other social activities was especially difficult.
“If you’re on the spectrum, that screen is a world that you can understand, you’re probably going to be on a lot more, you’re probably going to have fewer social interactions, because you just don’t like that world.
“So it’s really hard to force someone who’s on the spectrum not to be on a screen a lot and to get them out doing sport or other social stuff.”
The other issue parents needed to be aware of was the nature of the games themselves, which were “basically gambling”, using things like ‘lootboxes’ – virtual treasure chests containing surprise items that can be used in games.
You could pay extra for these items, but they “were not essentially worth anything”.
However, they fulfilled the function of keeping kids welded to their phones.
“Games they’re playing now have a lot more thinking involved to keep you hooked, to keep you engaged. They don’t just finish. [Parents need to be] aware that it’s not just a harmless product.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a game, or if it’s Facebook or TikTok, there’s stuff to keep you coming back because that’s how money’s made,” McMillan said.
Some ideas for parents to try:
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