Why all this talk about 'gaming addiction' is not helping families

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

The issue of gaming addiction among kids and teens is getting a lot of traction in the media since the World Health Organisation officially listed "gaming disorder" as a disease earlier this year. Oh, and since the world's most popular game Fortnite came on the scene.

Earlier this month, we heard an outcry from parents in the wake of a 60 Minutes segment on gaming addiction, in which the parents who agreed to share their stories in the segment faced a barrage of shameful criticism from people online.

As someone who researches this topic and regularly speaks to parents who are trying to navigate this brave new world of parenting in the digital age, I have two problems with this focus on addiction.

Firstly, any addiction is a really complex issue; it's not straightforward.

Research tells us that the reality of kids being medically diagnosed with internet or gaming addiction is estimated to be around 3 per cent, so this is hardly an issue affecting the general population.

The limited research we have available into internet and gaming addiction also shows that addiction is often a byproduct of other underlying mental health issues. We are fairly certain that kids with depression, anxiety or poor impulse control for example are more vulnerable to addiction and the harmful potential of video games.

There are many factors that come into play, such as gender differences, and biological and sociological factors, when considering gaming addiction.

That's not to say many more kids are not obsessed, digitally dependent or that they don't have unhealthy tech habits, but we have to be cautious about labelling their behaviour "addiction".

My second problem with the recent focus on addiction is that, in highlighting extreme examples, we have to be careful about blaming parents.


I call it "techno shaming" and, when we see stories in the media about kids who are addicted and their parents get attacked, this doesn't help any of us who are trying to figure this out to engage in transparent conversations about the challenges we're facing as modern parents.

We are the first generation of parents to raise kids in this digital world. We've got no frame of reference, unlike with lots of other parenting dilemmas such as food refusal or tantrums or sleep issues.

Our parents simply didn't have to deal with the digital dilemmas we're facing. We can't even ask friends with slightly older children how they tackled these issues, as technology keeps evolving and changing.

We're all in this together and we're all making decisions on the fly without firm guidelines about what's helpful and what's not. We're in unchartered waters, so it's no wonder we're confused and concerned.

Demonising games isn't the solution, blaming parents isn't the solution and suggesting that we have an epidemic isn't the solution.  Instead, we need to equip parents with practical solutions about how to help their children and teens tame their tech habits.

The 3 Bs Solution

I believe there are three key aspects to ensuring screen time doesn't get out of hand in your home, whatever age your kids are.

1. Boundaries

Kids need firm, consistent boundaries around what, when, where, how and who they use technology with. Parents and carers need to be the pilots of the digital place and establish and enforce firm boundaries with their kids and screens. What is age-appropriate? When can they use it (bearing in mind time of day has a huge impact on kids' behaviour)? Where can they use devices … because having consoles and phones in bedrooms for example can lead to more harmful tech habits and the likelihood of nastiness and bullying is much higher in the evening when kids' brains are tired (when their amygdala, their emotional brain, switches on and their prefrontal cortex, their logical brain, switches off)?

2. Balance 

Kids (and we) need a balance between online and offline, analogue and digital worlds, rapid-fire, fast-pace activity and slow action. We need to ensure screens don't displace kids' basic needs and developmental priorities.

3. Boredom

Our kids have become so accustomed to being digitally distracted, it's become a habitual way for them (and us) to operate. Our kids' brains need white space and time to daydream — neuroscientists call it "mind wandering" mode. When they enter this state, they can think creatively and solve problems.

By focusing on these aspects, rather than blaming and shaming, we just might find our way through these murky waters.

Dr Kristy Goodwin is one of Australia's leading digital parenting experts (and a mum who also deals with her kids' techno-tantrums!). She's the author of Raising Your Child in a Digital World, a speaker and researcher. Dr Kristy is presenting seminars on this topic in Sydney on 20th September and Canberra on 24th September. https://drkristygoodwin.com/