Her “sweet, well-mannered” 11-year-old son stole his father’s credit card to buy more advanced versions of Minecraft online, a Johannesburg woman reveals. In the process the boy blew R800, which he now has to pay back out of his pocket money.
Another woman firmly believes her 12-year-old son’s addiction to Minecraft is the cause of his poor performance at school.
Some parents are so worried about their kids becoming hooked on the popular computer game several Facebook support groups have sprung up, including My Kid’s Crazy for Minecraft and Mama (Moms Against Minecraft Addiction). These are for women who can’t tear their husbands and kids away from the game. And on minecraftanonymous.com you can test if you’re addicted or not. There are similar support groups and websites for other computer games such as World of Warcraft and RuneScape.
But can one really become addicted to an ostensibly harmless computer game?
Yes, you can, says Dr Philip Tam, a psychiatrist and president of the Network for Internet Investigation and Research in Australia. And this form of addiction has spread so rapidly it could turn out to be “the plague of the 21st century”, he warns.
She allowed her son, Martin*, to play Minecraft on the computer when he’d finished his homework, Sandra Matthews* of Sandton, Johannesburg, says.
“Now it turns out he was lying to us that he’d finished his homework so he could play. He might have to repeat Grade 7.’’
Instead of banning the game in their home, Sandra has now locked the computer with a password so her son can’t play without her permission.
“The game encourages logic, creativity and problem-solving,’’ she explains. “I want him to learn to manage his time and priorities rather than taking the game away.’’
Since its launch in 2011 more than 20 million copies of Minecraft have been sold online and in the Xbox 360 version. It can be downloaded from the internet for $19,99. It’s also available on mobile devices.
IS IT AN ADDICTION?
You can definitely get addicted to computer games, says Bryan D Hellmann, a Cape Town psychologist. “In psychological terms, addiction is not restricted to substance abuse.”
In a study on the influence of computer games Professor Mark Griffiths of the University of Plymouth in England found seven per cent of learners aged 12 to 16 he surveyed devote at least 30 hours a week to computer games.
At least one per cent of them were addicted to the games. He believes there are similarities between addiction to heroin and computer games. Children experience a sense of euphoria and want to play longer and accumulate more points. Just like heroin addicts, these kids experience withdrawal symptoms when they’re forced to stop playing. They become sulky and irritable.
And as with gambling, tension is created by the knowledge you’ll get a reward sooner or later; you just don’t know when. This makes you carry on playing and neglect other important activities.
A study found boys who play computer games for five hours or more a day spend up to 30 per cent less time reading compared with those who are limited to an hour or two a day, says Dr Hermann Liebenberg, a psychologist based in Centurion.
“Isolation often results from the excessive playing of computer games,” he warns.
Still, some experts say playing computer games online can be a welcome social exercise, for example for children with Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism. But this interaction takes place in an unrealistic world with other children sitting in front of their computers elsewhere. “There are better ways to develop social skills in the real world,’’ Dr Liebenberg says.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) – the “psychiatric bible’’ – doesn’t recognise game addiction. But the next edition of the DSM says “internet gaming addiction” has been flagged for future study.
“Computer games such as Minecraft require certain skills, [the same as] chess and soccer,’’ says Dean Groom, an Australian educational developer and co-founder of Massively Minecraft, a program that uses the game to help kids with their homework.
“Success in games depends on perseverance, intelligence, practice and study, and doesn’t depend on chance. To say Minecraft is addictive is like saying millions of people are addicted to soccer. The brain enjoys being exercised. In which case, parents should also be concerned about chess.”
WARNING SIGNS OF GAME ADDICTION
- You withdraw and experience feelings of anger, anxiety and/or depression when you don’t have access to a computer, writes Dr Jerald Block in The American Journal of Psychiatry. During games you lose track of time.
- You have to play more and more and use better and better computer equipment to derive satisfaction from the games.
- You lie and neglect your duties and friends.
- Excessive irritability and aggression in teens can be a sign of too little sleep, but also a symptom of the brain being overloaded due to the constant wakefulness when computer games are being played obsessively, Dr Liebenberg says.
- Computer games can encourage kids with obsessive-compulsive problems to pursue their compulsions. Yet the brains of children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) should get sufficient rest; they should also do activities less exciting than playing computer games.
FINDING A BALANCE
- Don’t use Minecraft as a babysitter, but as an opportunity to learn, says Dean Groom, co-founder of the educational program Massively Minecraft. For instance, make use of the fact players must constantly count supplies to figure out what equipment and structures they need.
- Excessive playing can be a sign the player wants to escape from reality. “Parents must try to establish what their child wants to escape from,’’ psychologist Bryan D Hellmann says.
- Play computer games like Minecraft with your kids, Durban psychologist Rakhi Beekrum says, and discuss the pros and cons.
- Parents and teachers must join hands to ensure children obsessed with computer games do their homework. Discuss ways they can use their passion for Minecraft and the skills they’ve acquired that way – such as hand-eye coordination, mathematical understanding and imagination – in their school work.
- Set clear boundaries. Agree on how many hours your child can play and stick to it, psychologist Dr Hermann Liebenberg says.
BY PIETER VAN ZYL. EXTRA SOURCES: THENEXTWEB.COM, MINECRAFT.NET, DEANGROOM.WORDPRESS.COM