Frustrated parents across the U.S. have taken to Facebook forums to vent about their child’s obsession with “Fortnite” and the alleged trouble the game is causing in their households. But how do you know if your child’s Fortnite or other playing habits are typical of their age group, or maybe troubling signs of something more?
Before starting another messy battle with your child over their device usage, it’s important to take a step back and evaluate without bias, Doreen Dodgen-Magee, Psy.D., author of “Deviced! Balancing Life and Technology in the Digital World," told Fox News. Dodgen-Magee explained that there is often a generational divide within the household that might lead to disagreements about what constitutes “normal” gaming habits versus “excessive.”
With over 200 million active users, Fortnite is likely the bane of many families with teens, but Dodgen-Magee wonders how many parents are informed about the game, and how many others are lecturing their children without being aware of their own tech habits. She encourages parents to approach their child armed with information about technology and the latest games, and to avoid creating a situation in which the child is finding ways to sneakily use like an addict.
“People who don’t understand gaming will become highly worried, and really the person’s use is not excessive if you consider the range of what is normal,” she said, adding that the norm depends on the type of technology being used.
For example, four hours of device usage may account for two hours of watching television while also scrolling through a cellphone or using a tablet during that same time period.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a 2015 survey found 53 percent of children between ages 8 and 12 have their own tablet, while 24 percent have their own smartphone. Among teens, 67 percent reported having their own smartphone.
I always want to stress to parents that it’s easier to establish healthy norms than it is to break the habit.
In 2017, 94 percent of parents who participated in the APA’s annual Stress in America survey reported taking action to manage their child’s tech use during the school year, while 48 percent reported that regulating their child’s screen time is a constant battle.
“We live in a way where we have our devices or games with us at all times,” Dodgen-Magee said, further explaining that addictions are often formed as coping mechanism for an underlying issue.
She added that a child’s relationship with technology – which forms from the moment they are handed a toy with a chip in it – may have morphed into a way to avoid situations that make them uncomfortable, like conversing with strangers or general social anxiety. Rather than face their fear, the child retreats into the stimulating, familiar world of gaming instead of dealing with what has become an awkward reality for them.
“Stimulation feels more comfortable to us than what soothing would have been,” she said. “We’ve flipped the thinking so that stimulation feels better than the soothing, and it distracts us from the root issue that might be causing us to use.”
In order to address the need for stimulation, she suggested that rather than simply taking the device away, which may cause outbursts and anger in the child, parents flood their home with other stimulating activities that may serve as a replacement for the game, or “outshine” the device.
“I always want to stress to parents that it’s easier to establish healthy norms than it is to break the habit,” she said.
In her own practice, Dodgen-Magee challenges patients to use their device while balancing on a board and often finds they put down the device in favor of mastering the new task.
Dodgen-Magee also encouraged parents to talk to their child about the game rather than completely ban it from the household in hopes of delving deeper, and discovering what about that particular game is so appealing to the child.
For parents with grave concerns, she said to watch for signs of withdrawal in your child – like those that come with any other form of addiction such as physical shaking or trembling, reoccurring themes in schoolwork or play, needing longer amounts of time to play – that could signal a larger issue, and the need for professional help.
“Mental health as a whole is so behind the game with this issue,” she said. “If our client is spending 10 hours a day with this stuff, and we’re not talking about it in session, we are failing our clients.”