facebook

Is Your Kid Is Addicted To Fortnite? What Parents Need To Know About 'Video Game Addiction' & Gaming Disorders

Photo: epic games
Why Is Fortnite So Popular? How To Know If Your Child's 'Video Game Addiction Is Real Or Normal

How often does your kid play?

I’m sick of fighting with my kids about Fortnite.

It’s not just Fortnite, of course. My kids love video games of all types, but there’s never been a game that fires up tempers in our home the way Fortnite does.

Our family argues about Fortnite and other games so often that if it were up to my husband, there’d be a lifetime ban on video games in our house. He worries that kids today (and especially teenagers) have forgotten how to have fun without screens, and hearing about what some believe is a rise in gaming disorders only increases our concerns.

My husband and I are far from the only parents fighting with their kids, particularly pre-teen and teenaged boys, about excessive video game and screen time. In fact, complaining about our kids’ Fortnite addiction bonds moms and dads across the globe, especially those of us with sons ages 9-to-14-years-old.

Some of us even wonder if our kids are experiencing a true video game addiction, the kind that can affect their schoolwork and social lives — especially after news headline shouting things like, “Fortnite can be as addictive as heroin”.

What is Fortnite?

According to Wikipedia, Fortnite is actually three different types of games in one: "Fortnite: Save the World, a cooperative shooter-survival game for up to four players to fight off zombie-like creatures and defend objects with fortifications they can build, Fortnite Battle Royale, a free-to-play battle royale game where up to 100 players fight to be the last person standing, and Fortnite Creative, where players are given complete freedom to create worlds and battle arenas."

RELATED: The Psychological Reason Your Kids Love Fortnite — Plus 7 Tips For Dealing With Video Game 'Addiction'

While the headline comparing Fortnite to heroin is likely an exaggeration, a cautionary story out of the UK tells of a 9-year-old girl who was sent to rehab for her Fortnite addiction, which was literally ruining her life.

Her mother told Newsweek, “My husband saw her light on in the night and found her sitting on a urine-soaked cushion playing the game … I found her backside was red-raw. She was so hooked to the game she wouldn’t even go to the toilet.”

The idea of becoming addicted to a video game may seem ridiculous to some, but it’s serious enough that the World Health Organization (WHO) currently lists "gaming disorder" as a mental health condition, "... characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences."

But is it really possible to form a Fortnite addiction, or are gaming disorders just the latest thing for adults to overreact about?

During a panic in the 1980s, my grandmother believed my brother’s Dungeons & Dragons hobby would lead him to Satanism, and that MTV would cause me to drop out of school.

Somehow, despite my love of the band Guns 'n' Roses and my brother’s satchel full of multi-sided dice, we both obtained high-quality educations (him from Columbia, me from UCLA) without resorting to devil-worship.

Is the panic over Fortnite equally as absurd? The truth is, it’s hard to know.

The theory that kids could become addicted to Fortnite may have some scientific merit, but the evidence is far from clear-cut.

The biggest challenge to understanding the long-term effects of video game use is the simple fact that games change faster than studies can keep up with.

For instance, studies that started on gamers twenty to thirty years ago, long enough to offer solid long-term data, would’ve been about an entirely different type of game.

Games back then were limited in scope, generally moved in a linear fashion — as opposed to today's "open world" games like Fortnite, Minecraft, and Grand Theft Auto — and didn't offer the same type of in-game purchases back then. The rewards were simpler, and completing a game took weeks or sometimes even months.

To further complicate matters, many mental health experts believe humans simply cannot become addicted to something that’s not a chemical substance, such as heroin or nicotine.

These non-drug obsessions are often called "process addictions" or "behavioral addictions", and are a major point of contention among professionals in the mental health community, hotly debated every time a celebrity claims they're addicted to sex or pornography.

RELATED: Is Harvey Weinstein A Sex Addict? Or Is He Using Sex Addiction Rehab As A 'Get Out Of Jail Free' Card?

As explained by Sarah Williams, PhD, "The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition [known as the DSM 5] only classifies gambling, but not other behavioral addictions, as an addictive disorder. This is because there is insufficient evidence at this time to group other behavioral disorders into the same category as substance abuse disorders."

Some experts believe conditions like shopping addiction, sex addiction, pornography addiction, and, of course, video game addiction belong in that category, too. But regardless of whether Gaming Disorder can be considered a true addiction, there is something about Fortnite that makes it hard to quit.

In addition, there are possible long-term effects our kids may face as a result of their obsession.

As a parent, that can be scary, so I turned to some experts to gather more information: a noted child psychologist, an educational technologist, and the real experts — kids themselves, including my own. I also talked to parents who, like me, are fighting the battle over Fortnite.

Why is Fortnite so popular?

The first thing you need to know is that Fortnite is big business. Really big business.

According to Forbes, since its October 2017 release, Fortnite has earned over $1 billion dollars. Yes, you read that right—billion with a “B”.

Pretty amazing, considering that kids can download it for free.

That’s actually part of the brilliance of this gaming model and what makes it so incredibly popular; it’s accessible to everyone with a smartphone, tablet, computer, or gaming console. That means your kids’ friends are probably already playing.

Despite it being a first-person shooter game where the objective is to find and kill all the other players, it’s juvenile and cartoonish in appearance.

Characters wear all sorts of wild outfits and do funny dances, called emotes. The kids collect these in-game products, a.k.a. “swag”, and most players want to acquire even more. A new avatar (called a "skin") costs between $7.50 and $20 (depending on its rarity and complexity).

Players also use their V-bucks — the official name for Fortnite money, which is purchased with real money — for special tools and emotes.

As Julia Glum wrote in Time’s "Money" section, “Some 125 million people have played Fortnite at one time or another … nearly 70% of players said they’ve spent real money on the game, dolling out an average of $85 despite the fact that the products are cosmetic (and don’t actually help you win).”

RELATED: 5 Of The Most Common Fortnite Scams — And How To Protect Yourself & Your Family

On top of that, Epic Games keeps players from getting bored by offering new seasons every few months.

These feature the same basic premise, characters, and map as the original game, but with new skins and game-play features like new guns.

Fortnite season six, for instance, offered “back bling”, which makes it possible for players to carry p​ets in backpacks. My son has a little pet dog that rides along with his avatar, and I have to admit that it’s incredibly cute.

They also schedule special events in the game, like the recent Fortnite concert featuring real-life artist Marshmello, which was attended by over 10 million players.

Fortnite’s appeal isn't just about what you can buy, though collecting swag definitely makes it more fun.

According to my kids, one of the big draws is that you can play with your real-life friends, and most of them are already online. In fact, so many kids are playing Fortnite that the game serves as valuable social currency in schools.

If you’ve chosen to keep your kids away from the game, they may find themselves without a conversational “in” with others, putting further pressure on parents wary of wading into the emotional chaos of regulating screen time. It's not just a game to today's kids, it can be a big part of how they relate to one another.

Michael*, an 11-year-old who loves Fortnite, told me that even with all the fancy things you can buy, what makes the game special is something very simple: “Everyone starts the same but your choices make the game fun. Choices like where to drop [and when to] change your weapons.”

Michael is onto something.

In this game, you always get a fresh start back at zero. Nobody has an advantage, so every time you play, you have a real chance of winning.

On top of that, kids have the ultimate say in how their game is going to be played. Unlike games such as Super Mario Bros. from my own childhood, where you only had one course you could run, there are infinite options in Fortnite, and every single choice is in your child’s hands.

According to my teenage son, being in control of one aspect of your life is incredibly important.

Kids have very little say in their own lives — everything from schooling, schedules, and even what they eat is determined by their parents. Even for the happiest, most well-adjusted kids, video games can feel like their one outlet for true freedom.

That perspective makes sense to me. A safe outlet where kids can be creative and feel a sense of freedom sounds great, and it’s one reason I embraced the game when it first came out. But then something changed.

While talking to other parents, I learned that otherwise well-behaved kids had been caught sneaking around in order to play Fortnite and similar games aimed at older audiences, like Rainbow Six Siege, lying about their screen time, and even misbehaving on the game in ways they would not in real life.

RELATED: 6 Fortnite Secrets Kids Know (But You Don't)

But not all kids are going to get in trouble while gaming, even if they find themselves feeling "hooked".

Zach Rosenberg, a writer at 8BitDad and a gamer himself, thinks video games can be a great way to bond with your kids.

He also shared with me a few reasons why he believes Fortnite is a fantastic game for kids to play with their parents, regardless of skill level.

“It has a low bar for entry," he explains. "It has a handful of game types that allow you to achieve different goals (kills, wins, daily and weekly challenges), it’s got exciting in-game caches — treasure chests, supply llamas and supply drops — all with gear of assorted rarity in them.” For kids, that's like opening a goody bag with surprises inside, every time they play.

Rosenberg adds that the building mechanism within the game allows kids to be creative and to compete in different ways. This aspect, in particular, is what gives his 9-year-old son, Matthew, a competitive edge.

“Even though I’ve got 30 more years of experience over my son playing games—and shooters, specifically—he can still beat me from time to time [at Fortnite]. I think it’s that balance that really gets ahold of kids and makes them feel like they can ‘win’.”

Zach and Matthew Rosenberg

The "just one more" mentality

There’s one word that comes up again and again when talking to parents of kids who love Fortnite: Addiction.

Kids who are normally well-behaved, social, and active often become angry and sullen when told it’s time to stop playing. Many revert to toddler-like behavior such as falling down in tantrums, throwing things (often the controller), and openly defying their parents’ rules. It’s almost like they can’t stop.

Lani*, Michael’s mother, knows all about the challenges of parenting in the age of Fortnite.

Michael had never played an Xbox video game until Fortnite, but all of his friends at school were already into it. When he started playing, Lani and her husband thought the game would make a great reward once he’d finished his school work and chores.

Before long, Michael was rushing through his homework, so the game was relegated to the weekends. But even on the weekends, Fortnite became an issue. If their family spends a full day out of the house, Michael will get upset and complain about not getting his Fortnite time.

Lani explains, “[Michael] is aggravated when we tell him time’s up, and says, ‘Five more minutes!’ And fifteen minutes later, he’s still playing. Often anger ensues when we finally shut it down.” Sometimes Michael even has tantrums.

RELATED: Authorities Warn That Predators Are Targeting Children On Fortnite — Here's How Parents Can Keep Kids Safe

Undesirable behavior shows up throughout the game, too.

Despite her appreciation of the teamwork involved in Fortnite, Lani says doesn’t like that Michael often yells at the game. He seems to have a very short temper when it comes to Fortnite, something many parents find troubling.

While listening in on my kids' games, I've heard other kids bullying players and using curse words. Additionally, the use of homophobic slurs is shockingly rampant on video games aimed at the 13-plus crowd, just as I've found it to be throughout most middle schools.

Given that so many kids are having tantrums and fighting with their parents about Fortnite, I can’t help but wonder what it is that makes good kids act so differently while playing.

Is it possible the kids are acting like addicts, or at the very least, developing unhealthy behaviors as a result of Fortnite?

Lani, for one, thinks so. She told me, “Even if he’s completed a game, Michael's addicted to playing more and more. [He’s] never satisfied.”

Dr. John G. Duffy, a clinical psychologist and author of The Available Parent, agrees that the patterns he’s seen emerging around Fortnite can become unhealthy.

He told me via email that he finds Fortnite, and the behavior around it, to be quite disturbing, as he's heard many teenagers (particularly boys) talk about the game, and has watched it being played. He explains that the built-in reward system can really hook kids.

“I find it more troubling and 'addictive' than other games,” Dr. Duffy says. “It's not that these boys believe it is a great game relative to others, or that the story-lines are enticing.” Rather, it’s an issue of reinforcement. “Unlike other games that require 'leveling up', and, say, weeks or months to complete a game, a game of Fortnite is over quickly, [in] about half an hour or forty-five minutes. So, a teenager can get through several games in an evening. And if you [come close to] winning, there is a clear draw to play 'just one more'”.

One adult player I spoke with agrees with Dr. Duffy, describing every win—and even every kill—as “lighting up his brain".

In my own experience, it's that “just one more” mentality which seems to be what lures my kids into hours of gameplay. Early on in their Fortnite and Rainbow Six Siege experiences, their intense desire to keep playing round after round seemed almost out of their control. They just wanted to win or to rack up more kills, and they were never satisfied.

RELATED: What You Need To Know Before Letting Your Kids Play Fortnite

Another serious concern to Duffy is the degree to which kids will forgo doing things that offer a more sustainable sense of accomplishment, like sports, hobbies, exercise, and friendships, in order to play Fortnite.

For many of the boys Dr. Duffy works with, Fortnite is the only “win” of their day. They may say to him, “I'm not a great student or athlete, I don't have a lot of friends, but this I do well.”

The scary thing is how that relatively easy “win” in Fortnite may tempt them into further abandoning the things that make them feel like winners in real life.

After all, real life is full of risk and rejection and a plethora of unknown variables. A friend might snub you, the person you have a crush on may not like you back, and you might not make the volleyball team. But in Fortnite, the worst that can happen is you lose. And you can always log back on to try again.

In Dr. Duffy’s opinion, this is a strong setup for future addiction.

“Fortnite, in the extreme, is a maladaptive coping mechanism that can, and often will, lead to other maladaptive coping behavior,” he explains. “Drugs and/or alcohol use are certainly possibilities.”

Dr. Duffy also shares that he works with a number of high school- and college-aged boys who use alcohol and/or drugs simultaneously with Fortnite.

So, was Fortnite designed to elicit a response similar to addiction in our kids, or did Epic Games just happen to stumble upon video game magic?

Lori Getz, founder of Cyber Education Consultants and author of The Tech-Savvy User's Guide to the Digital World, told me it’s likely not a coincidence that some kids have trouble putting down that controller.

While she doesn’t know that Epic Games, specifically, did this, Getz told me, “Many video game companies hire neuroscientists to come in and play these games to figure out exactly the moment when a player is going to get too frustrated and want to quit. Then they change the game so you can succeed.”

So when we wonder whether or not these games could be addictive, Getz explains, “They’re actually built that way. They’re actually built to keep kids and adults playing.”

The benefits of gaming

Of course, not all kids who play Fortnite will grow up to be addicts. Most of our kids play Fortnite in a relatively healthy way, and will eventually grow out of it or find something new to obsess over.

There are even some noteworthy benefits to playing video games.

For instance, one study of college e-sports athletes (competitive video game players) showed that their brains can actually benefit from all their time spent gaming.

In a CBS News report, James Onate, co-director of Sports Medicine Movement Analysis at Ohio State University, explains that as of now, there aren't a lot of studies on how video games affect the brain in the long-term. But early data from their work indicates there are some positive side-effects of gaming.

“We see that they have some higher cognitive capabilities than what we call the general population,” he explains. “Their ability to sustain attention and dual-task is a little bit higher."

RELATED: 11 Fun Video Games For Kids (That Will Actually Teach Them Something Too)

An article in the American Journal of Play explains in even greater detail some of the benefits of video games.

“A growing body of research demonstrates that some types of games, in particular action video games, promote improvements in a wide variety of perceptual, attentional, and cognitive abilities … [a]nd they are a model of how to teach children complex and difficult tasks and abilities.”

In 2015, Peter Gray, Ph.D., cited even more evidence as to the positive effects of video games, including: Improved visual contrast sensitivity, successful treatment of amblyopia (lazy eye), improved spatial attention, improved ability to track moving objects in a field of distracters, reduced impulsiveness, and improvements in executive functioning.

Wow!

With all that in mind, why do games like Fortnite seem to affect some of our kids so profoundly while others are willing to switch their console off as soon as they're asked?

First, some kids’ personalities may be more prone to obsessive or addictive-type of behaviors with video games.

In the CBS News report, psychologist Dr. Michael Fraser notes that college is often when we see obsessive video gaming become truly disruptive. Kids are on their own for the first time, without parents around to help them regulate their screen time.

“High school students who suffer from anxiety, depression, learning disorders or have a hard time turning the game off are most at-risk in college,” Fraser notes.

If your child fits this description, it’s probably wise to take seriously the warning signs that he or she is using the video game in a maladaptive or unhealthy way, and to seek help from a mental health professional sooner rather than later, when the problem has become more complex.

On top of that, it’s important to pay attention to signs that your younger child simply may not be developmentally ready to play a game like Fortnite in the first place.

But as a parent, that can be incredibly hard to determine. After all, it seems like every kid at school is logged on, some as young as 5 years old.

I asked Lori Getz how a parent can know when a video game is no longer healthy in their child’s life. From her personal and professional experience, she suggests that “when you get to the point where you see physical and emotional signs of addiction, they should not be playing Fortnite.”

But those signs can sneak up on you, as a parent. I know that with my own kids, it seemed like everything was fine one week, and the next week we were arguing over Fortnite on a daily basis. Getz notes that the most common way in which parents approach limiting Fortnite (and other screen time)—by setting time limits—can actually exacerbate the problem.

“You can’t say ‘you can watch for an hour a day’. It doesn’t work. Because what you should really be focused on is asking yourself, ‘Do I really have time to be doing this right now, or should I be doing something else?’” she explains.

Regulating screen time has to start with a daily conversation about what else needs to be done, what is most important to them, and setting daily goals. That way, managing their time productively becomes second nature to them and is more intuitive than turning off the game at some arbitrary time.

This tactic also helps teach kids how to self-regulate their video game use. That way, when they get to college or are living on their own, the ability to prioritize what needs to be done will be second nature to them.

Getz also notes that we should first focus on our kids’ physical health. Whether you’re a child or an adult, if you’ve been sitting all day in school or at work, spending another six hours staring at a screen is not a healthy choice for your body or your emotional well-being.

“We need to move more than we sit. It’s just that simple," she says, and that probably means playing less video games.

A golden parenting opportunity

One thing that’s clear to me, as a parent, is that the Fortnite craze will pass and something else is going to capture kids’ and teens’ attention.

Depending upon the age of your child, it might be something relatively innocuous, the way Fortnite is. If your child is older, that “Fortnite high” may be replaced with something like a romantic or sexual relationship, drugs, tobacco, or alcohol.

With that in mind, Fortnite offers the perfect opportunity to talk to kids about your family’s values and priorities. It’s also an early lesson in how to navigate distractions and temptations.

As our kids grow, we want to establish open communication, balanced with just the right amount of authority. At the very least, Fortnite is a great place to start.

Ultimately, I’m sick of fighting with my kids about video games and I’m desperate to make it stop.

As much as I want to just throw that Xbox right in the trash, Fortnite — and games like it — offer my husband and myself an opportunity to work with our kids on priorities and recognize the signs that something isn’t healthy for them.

Now is the time to have these conversations with our children, while they're still young enough to really care what we think.

RELATED: The Ultimate Parenting Guide For Keeping Kids & Teens Safe On YouTube

Joanna Schroeder is a feminist writer and media critic whose writing has appeared on sites like Time, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, BuzzFeed, Babble, Vox, and more, as well as the mother of three and an editor at YourTango. For more, follow her on Twitter.