Photo of a boy holding up his game

"I'm not addicted!" Kids have a right to play - even digitally

5 August 2020
Telling kids they are “game addicts” is potentially harmful
Children adopt the word "addicted" to describe a game as fun or to say how long they played it. But adults use it as a pathology - and that can harm kids.
photo of a child in the dark playing video games

“I’m not addicted! Fortnite is my third favourite game.” Photo: Pixabay

Are games really addictive?

Parents, teachers and the media need to stop pathologising game play as “addictive” or a “disorder” as it is potentially harmful to a child’s sense of identity and the benefits of play, according to new research.

The study, led by Dr Marcus Carter, in the School of Literature, Arts and Media, who has previously researched the appeal of Fortnite, examined how Australian children aged 9-14 years understood claims that Fortnite is “addictive” and applied it to their own play.

The study found children used the word “addictive” to describe a game simply being fun, or used the term to describe their desire to play a game beyond the length or occasion it was allowed. This made some children avoid playing Fortnite, or in some cases, any games at all.

The research, published in the journal Media International Australia, argues that the risk of pathologising all video games as “addictive” is that some children might miss out on the benefits of playing games, and others may start to associate the normal and reasonable desire to play as something forbidden or deviant.

Photo of a boy on a bed with a gaming controller in his hands

"Kids need to have fun, whether it’s to de-stress, relax or have positive social experiences with their friends." Photo: Unsplash

What the kids* say

  • “I’m not addicted! It’s my third favourite game,” said Harry, 11, when asked about Fortnite.
  • Liam, 13, said a teacher told his class “we shouldn’t be playing Fortnite…it’s like, bad for our education."
  • Narrah, 11, felt that kids “pooping” or “wetting” themselves was probably just “one person out of millions of people who play Fortnite.”
  • James, 13, said “a lot of that media stuff is bullcrap….I just can’t believe them."

*Names have been changed for privacy

What the expert says

Dr Carter, an expert on the science of gaming, says games are “an appealing hobby, enthusiastically engaged in, but parents shouldn’t misinterpret this desire as problematic, compulsive or addiction. We wouldn’t call someone ‘addicted’ to books just because they wanted to read another chapter of Harry Potter after bedtime,” he said.

Dr Carter says that “the formal designation of ‘gaming disorder’ as a disease by organisations like the World Health Organisation is not supported by current research and is a highly problematic move.”

“The risk of calling all video games addictive is that children might miss out on the benefits of playing games. We already know games are good for children’s creativity and imagination, and are an engaging way to develop their problem-solving skills, spatial skills, and strategic decision-making abilities,” Dr Carter says.

“Games are also an enormous amount of fun; and kids need to have fun, whether it’s to de-stress, relax, or have positive social experiences with friends, the play of digital games is – in moderation – as important as non-digital play.”

photo of two kids looking at a laptop, one of them is celebrating a win

"The play of digital games is – in moderation – as important as non-digital play." Photo: Pixabay

Advice for parents

Dr Carter says concerned parents should try playing digital games with their kids.

“Co-play is a really great mediation strategy for digital games. Parent perspectives and behaviour while playing influences how children understand their media experience and react to things like loss, challenges, and how children develop important sportsmanship and teamwork skills. It’s also an opportunity for parents to let their kids be the expert and ask them how to play!”

Declaration: The authors received no financial support for the research.

Elissa Blake

Media Adviser (Humanities & Science)

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