Emma is a busy Mum of five children, aged from 1 to 17. She lives with her husband and family just outside London and blogs about their family life at Joy of five.
Last year, Emma’s 14-year-old son, Jack*, became addicted to online gaming. Here, Emma shares her experience to offer support to other parents.
Our family is a little larger than average, and it makes for a busy household. We’ve never really had much time to play computer games, except the odd game on the iPad for the little ones.
When Jack was 11, he started to play a little Minecraft, but it wasn’t until he went into his second year of secondary school that he really got into gaming. At first, screen time was strictly limited to two hours a day, and the games Jack had access to were always approved by either myself or his Dad.
We’d been to several school presentations about Internet security, and we felt as though we’d done our homework. We felt secure that we were dealing with things well, and had all the knowledge we needed.
About 18 months ago, Jack got access to X-Box Live so he could play online with his friends. Very gradually, things started to change.
We noticed he was nagging to play more, and he’d become quite rude and aggressive if we asked him to come off the computer. He started sneaking back online when we thought we weren’t looking, missing meals and family social occasions. He neglected his homework and stopped spending time with his brothers and sisters.
When we challenged him, Jack would cry and complain that we were the only parents who were so strict. It was relentless and created lots of arguments in the family.
One day, I was checking through a bank statement when my heart sank. Microsoft was appearing again and again – small amounts, but adding up to more than £500 altogether! It turned out my bank card was linked to his X-Box Live account. We called Microsoft, who opened an enquiry and luckily we had the funds returned after a few days.
After this, we completely banned the X-Box for three months. After weeks of tears and tantrums, we felt we’d got our loving teen back again, and he was interacting with family the way he used to. As parents, we felt bad taking something he loved away from him, so he was allowed to return to X-Box.
This time we had even stricter rules about when Jack could play, but without us knowing, he was sneaking off to friends’ houses, gaming all day, then sleeping over and playing video games late into the night.
One morning, almost six months ago, Jack woke up in a cold sweat, crying hysterically and shouting he hadn’t been able to move his body, and he thought someone was in his room, watching him. It wasn’t an isolated incident. He was afraid to fall asleep and felt a “presence” in his room sometimes.
Of course, we were very worried. I took Jack to our local GP, who diagnosed sleep paralysis. We were told it can be triggered by lack of sleep and long periods playing gaming without breaks.
It was a huge wake-up call for us, but also for Jack. Although he plays games now, it’s only sometimes, and he has a 30-minute timer after which the console gets turned off. As parents, we are really hot on checking this, and we have talked to other parents to ensure we know what’s happening when Jack is visiting friends.
I think what we’ve learned from this experience is to be vigilant at all times, as addiction can creep up and take hold very quickly. We check that screen time limits are being stuck to, rather than assuming children can moderate themselves.
We also steer clear of live gaming, because it brings in influences from outside the home that can undermine the rules you have as a family.
If your child is involved in gaming, keep an eye out for warning signs like a lack of interest in other activities, a change in character, and temper issues when they’re told to leave a game. We lost our son to this for far too long, and I wouldn’t want it to happen to another family.
* names changed
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