If you’re a parent, the word Fortnite is probably imprinted on to your consciousness. The internet game, which has been bubbling up for months, has suddenly turned into one huge rollercoaster of a craze, sweeping playgrounds and homes like wildfire. Suddenly it is everywhere – just like the fidget spinners of last summer – and, just as suddenly, there are scores of mums and dads complaining of their children showing signs of anxiety, frustration and distraction, all recognised symptoms of gaming addiction. Primary schools are urging parents to ban their children from playing it and, earlier this week, there were reports of one nine-year-old reportedly admitted to rehab after becoming so addicted she wet herself rather than leave the screen.
My 14-year-old is one of these addicted Forniters. If we allowed him, if we gave him just one internet inch, he would take a mile. He would sit for hours and hours at his screen, chatting, shouting and laughing on the headphones with his mates. It takes at least 15 minutes of bargaining, cajoling and threatening to get him off it, every night. And, recently, after weeks and weeks of hiding my head in the sand, I’ve realised that it’s actually become a problem.
My realisation, however, has not been helped by Piers Morgan, who waded in and bashed every parent in the country round the head with the “parental responsibility” stick: "The thing about this is, I've got four kids. The youngest girl is nearly seven years old," he said. "You have to, as a parent, exercise parental responsibility. If she was playing all night, I just take it away. It's got to start with the parents.”
Morgan's comments were followed by This Morning’s Holly Willoughby, who confessed she thought she was a “bad parent” for not letting her nine-year-old son play: "I feel bad because they're all talking about it, I feel like I'm keeping him away from something."
For any parent battling with a cross, irritable, addicted child right now, remarks like Morgan's and Willoughby’s are not helpful. In fact, let me start by saying that you are not irresponsible and you are not bad. You are simply a parent of a child who has fallen into playing one of the most deliberately addictive games in years.
The internet has a grip on our children and, if we don’t all fight it together, as soon one fad fizzles something else is certain to come along
It is a known fact in the industry that Fortnite is addictive – experts point to the fact that it intentionally captures a psychological phenomenon used by all game developers, a “lose by a little, win by a lot” device that draws gamers in and keeps them coming back. It has also meant Fortnite has been extraordinarily successful: in April, it generated £222m from in-app purchases alone. Pundits have called it a “gaming masterpiece that belongs next to the Mona Lisa in the halls of history”.
It’s very, very hard for a child to put down. Indeed, a study by the California State University found proof through MRI scans that Fortnite, and other addictive video games, can have a similar effect on children’s brains as drug abuse or alcoholism.
For many children, Fortnite has become their social life – my child doesn’t see his friends IRL, he sees them online. I work full time – mine are latchkey kids – and when I come home from work, no matter how many incentives I give him not to be on it, I find him playing. I can’t cut the WiFi (his older brother has A-levels to do). I could unplug the game and lock it away, and only bring it out at certain times, but banning him means that I ostracise him from his friends, who are all on it, too. I don’t want my child not to have a social life, but the social life he has is just not healthy.
This week, there were reports of a mother winning a three-year fight to get her 15-year-old son officially recognised and diagnosed by the NHS with internet-gaming addiction. Her case brings hope to parents with children in a similar situation. On Monday, The Telegraph launched the Duty of Care campaign calling on ministers to make social-media and online-gaming companies subject to a statutory duty to protect children from harms such as addiction, bullying and grooming when using their services.
Meanwhile, however, what’s a parent to do? What am I to do? The answer is, perhaps ironically, by going online. As soon as I publish this, I have decided to set up a Fortnite Survivors WhatsApp group with my friends and organise a meet up in the park at the weekend. It’s about getting fellow parents to unite, talk to each other – and collectively get our kids off the game. Fidget spinners may have ended last summer as abruptly as they began, but there’s no use waiting for the Fortnight craze to end. The internet has a grip on our children and, if we don’t all fight it together, as soon as one fad fizzles something else is certain to come along.