'Fortnite' and the collapse of parenting

There is nothing more irresponsible than a boy on a videogame binge.

The call came in shortly after 6 a.m. Jason was refusing to get out of bed. So his mom called 9-1-1. Deputy Damion Whyte of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office responded to the call.

“Are you serious?” I later asked Mr. Whyte. “You responded to a 9-1-1 call about a boy who wouldn’t get out of bed?”

IS 'FORTNITE' MAKING ITS FINALE?

“It’s our policy to respond to every 9-1-1 call, regardless,” Mr. Whyte told me.

Deputy Whyte arrived at the home and went into the boy’s bedroom. He told the boy to get up, get dressed, and go to school.

The boy refused. He said that he had been playing his video game until 3 a.m. He was tired. “Not going to school today,” he mumbled.

“Son, I’m not asking you to go to school,” Deputy Whyte said. “I’m telling you. Now quit wasting my time. Get out of bed and get dressed.”

The boy obeyed. And Deputy Whyte drove the boy to the high school.

When I speak to parents’ groups about kids who are addicted to Fortnite and other video games, I tell them that it is the parents’ job to limit, govern and guide their kids’ use of video games -- to help their kids develop good habits instead of bad habits. One response I often hear from parents is, “Shouldn’t I give my son the freedom to make mistakes? It’s not like he’s going to be driving while intoxicated. It’s just a video game. I think good parenting means letting kids decide.”

Does good parenting mean letting kids decide? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. If your kid is invited to two different parties this Saturday, it’s reasonable to let your kid decide which party to attend. But if your 12-year-old wants to drink a vodka tonic or two, just to see what it feels like, that’s not such a great idea. Alcohol is toxic and can be addictive. The younger the child, the greater the risks. For 12-year-olds, the risks of drinking alcohol clearly outweigh the benefits.

You tell your kid: No vodka tonics for you.

Is playing Fortnite more like being invited to a party or drinking vodka? There is growing evidence that online video games can be addictive. Fortnite may be the most addictive of them all. It is currently the most popular video game in the world, with more than 200 million active users.

If you’ve never played Fortnite, here’s one way to understand the game: It’s Minecraft meets The Hunger Games. You’re on an island. Your job is to kill everybody else. You build defenses out of various materials, which you must acquire. You have to find weapons, and ammunition for those weapons, and use those weapons skillfully.

At the end of the game, there will be only one victor – or one victorious duo or squad, depending on your game mode. A round typically takes about 20 minutes from start to finish. The more you play, the more skillful you become. If you work hard enough, and put in enough hours, you will win. Eventually.

Each game begins with 100 combatants. The first time Brett played, there were about 80 other combatants remaining when he was killed. After he put in another 20 hours at the game, he was killed with just 10 people remaining. After another 100 hours at the game, six weeks later, Brett achieved his first victory. He was the last man standing. “There is nothing like getting that first "W" [win]. It’s the greatest feeling in the world,” Brett told me.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recently created a new diagnosis of “Gaming Disorder” in recognition of the growing number of people – mostly boys and young men – who have difficulty exerting control over the amount of time they spend playing video games, so much so that “gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities.”

In a recent survey of American teens, 27 percent of teens admitted playing Fortnite in the classroom. That proportion is likely higher for boys than for girls. Boys and young men playing Fortnite outnumber girls and young women roughly two to one. Among devoted gamers – those playing more than 20 hours a week – the boy-to-girl ratio is even higher.

Carol Ann Eastman was teaching freshman English in Summerville, South Carolina. A 14-year-old boy was was playing Fortnite on his phone. She asked him to put the phone away. He said “Hold on, I’m right in the middle of a kill.” Are you kidding me?

Does Fortnite take precedence over other activities in your son’s life? Back in ancient times – say, 10 years ago – most boys would rather spend time with their girlfriends than killing imaginary enemies in a video game. Not any more. Adam White, who teaches high school in Nova Scotia, recently told me about a posse of 12th grade girls who complained that they had lost their boyfriends to Fortnite.

If your son is more interested in playing Fortnite than in spending time with his girl, that’s a problem. If your son is more interested in scoring another kill than in joining the family for supper, that’s not good. If your son is staying up past midnight trying to score a Fortnite "W," it may be time to uninstall the game.

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Be brave. Do your job. Set limits. And if necessary, uninstall the game – which will also require that you deploy a parental monitoring app to prevent unauthorized reinstallation.

Olivia Pelka banned Fortnite after she realized that the game was taking over her son’s brain. She told me: “After a couple of weeks Fortnite-free, I noticed my son was calmer, happier, slept better, and was not avoiding activities with friends and family as he was during his Fortnite life.”

Don’t be intimidated. You can do this. It’s your job. If you don’t do it, who will?