Help, my son’s addicted to Fortnite!
‘If he had his own way, he would be on the game for at least ten hours a day’
Ever since my 13-year-old son Alex began playing Fortnite, he has been stuck in his room for what feels like the best part of one.
The other night, I caught him smuggling in a takeaway; the prospect of breaking away from the tactical survival game, which he plays online with hundreds of strangers for hours on end, just to have dinner with his family, was unthinkable.
At weekends, with his sound-proof headphones on, he can stay in his bedroom all day, excitedly shouting instructions into the microphone.
When he emerges – usually around midday, having played into the night – he’s like a zombie. If he had his own way, he would be on the game for at least ten hours a day, stopping just for toilet breaks. Welcome to my new world.
I kick myself for ever letting him talk me into buying him a PlayStation PS4; Fortnite is available as a free download, hence its world-dominating popularity: “But it’s actually good,” he insists, “because it teaches you to be strategic.” I just want him to be strategic at doing homework.
Having started to mature into a diligent, ambitious child, Alex has turned overnight into the teenager I always dreaded bringing up. My son, I learnt last week, is a “gamer”.
I should be grateful he’s not roaming the streets at night with his friends, and that his zombiefication is happening somewhere I can keep watch. But his addiction to this one, all-consuming game fills me with horror. I fear he will soon claim squatters rights, saying he is entitled to play Fortnite whenever, forever.
I have sought professional advice; Rachel Vecht, from Educating Matters (educatingmatters.co.uk), which offers parenting seminars in the home, tells me one of the most commonly asked question by parents in how to police a child’s screen-time – on their smartphone or at the gaming console.
“For most kids, banning screens altogether, or sleeping with the router under your pillow, is not the answer, just as I don’t recommend parents ban chocolates and sweets altogether. Kids tend to crave what they can’t have.” Besides, there will always be some new game or social media app that kids can become obsessed with. Before Fortnite, there was Minecraft and Pokemon Go.
“The question you should be asking is: do they have a healthy balance of time for other activities such as homework, socialising, exercise and being part of the family?”
At Vecht’s suggestion, I am implementing some new house rules.
Screentime (TV and phone) will be limited during holidays to four hours per day, no more than two hours in one go, and with an hour’s break in between. Playing stops one hour before bedtime, so Alex can “unwind”.
Advice for parents | How to protect your children from screen overuse
• Don’t use a digital babysitter. Babies and toddlers need a real caregiver, not a screen companion, to cuddle and talk with. There is no substitute for a real human being.
• Wait until your baby is two or three years old before they get screen time. And make a conscious decision about screen rules for them.
• Monitor your own screen time. Whether or not your children are watching, be aware of how much your television or computer is on at home – and how often you check your mobile phone in front of them.
• Ask your children about their real world day, but don’t forget to ask them about what’s happening in their cyber life.
• Don’t snoop or spy – studies show that children with overbearing parents just learn to be more secretive, and won’t turn to them when they run into trouble. In other words, be vigilant but not a vigilante.
• If you find inappropriate content, resist the urge to shut down or confiscate their device. You are depriving them of their entire support system. They need to reach out to friends. Let them.
• Finally, if anything goes wrong in their cyber life, tell them not to try to handle it on their own. That’s what parents are for.
On school nights, it’s half an hour on the phone, and just one hour on the PlayStation, and not unless all homework is complete. If this doesn’t work, then, after a warning, I will confiscate the screen from his bedroom. If that doesn’t work, I will get rid of the console.
I know other parents are equally despairing. One friend posted on Facebook: “I wish I never let my son have Fortnite. If I can spare someone else, please don’t do it!”