My son was a cyber addict hooked on sci-fi games . . .
Linda Duberley's child shut himself away from people to create a new personality in his electronic universe
When my son was 17, he came to my bedroom one evening for a rare heart-to-heart. "Mum, I want to stop. I need to stop. But I'm scared of upsetting people."
I knew Connor's three-year addiction to computer gaming had been ruining his life. But until he made that decision to change, four years ago, there had seemed little any of his family could do to help. His obsession with living in a virtual world was consuming his life, and destroying his education. It had left him without real-life friends – or the skills needed to acquire them. It had driven his father and me to despair.
We had already tried conventional medicine, including antidepressants, psychology sessions, fitness coaches and special diets. But, as I read last week of the parents who are spending thousands a week at clinics designed to help the growing number of children addicted to being online, I have to admit that, in the end, there was little we could do except be patient, be loving and keep setting boundaries.
Studies have suggested that as many as 600,000 computer users in the UK could be classed as "internet addicts" because they find it so difficult to keep away from computer games, social-networking sites and email. Such users struggle to control the time they spend online and become depressed if forcibly deprived of internet contact.
Depression was certainly a factor for Connor when his interest in computer games developed seven years ago. He had been through a lot: knocked down by a car aged 12, he had been left with a permanent limp. He'd witnessed me and his father divorce and we'd moved house from the city to the countryside. And on top of all that, Connor had begun working for his exams.
To me, the problem seemed to be school; Connor was truanting. He was tired and stressed. So, I cut back my work as a media consultant to be around more at home. But he found new ways to sneak home from school, only now he had to be even more surreptitious to avoid me. Then, at a parents' evening, two of his teachers were clearly surprised to see me – they thought that he had left the school.
That Christmas, his father took Connor's younger brother and sister away so he and I could be alone together and talk. I was optimistic. But shortly after that, on just the second day of the new term, I found Connor hiding in the bathroom, having sneaked back into the house. In fact, he turned up at home several times that week, once having gone missing for so long that I called the police. That time, I eventually found him hidden, wrapped up in a duvet inside a cupboard.
What was so awful about school, I asked in frustration? Connor admitted that school wasn't the problem. The real issue – it began to emerge – was that he was frightened of the world.
Life for teenagers has become incredibly pressured and complicated. You have to look the right way, have the right gear, get the grades – Connor just didn't want to engage with it all. He had turned instead to a virtual world where he could hide away. He found it in the form of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) – a type of web browser-based game in which huge number of players interact within a virtual world, often a sci-fi or fantasy scenario.
Here, he lived a parallel existence, one of his choosing, where he could defy reality and its complications. It was peaceful and compelling.
I had known Connor was often playing late into the night after his brother – with whom he shares a room – had fallen asleep. But I had thought it was a harmless distraction. I didn't realise he was using this world as a haven or that the longer he stayed in the cyber world, the more frightening the real world looked.
Now I began to understand that in a cyber world, you don't have to invest any real feeling, so knock-backs don't hurt the way they do in real life. But that also means you don't learn how to take risks and emotional development is arrested. You facilitate connections – you don't forge relationships.
No wonder children play the games for hours at a stretch. But you can't just log on for an hour and walk away. I researched the gaming world online, and read of one 20-year-old who played for 17 hours at a stretch, using a milk bottle rather than taking a loo break.
Was Connor addicted? Living in this "other" world was certainly compulsive. Online, Connor had created a character adept at gaining skills and being rewarded by his peers. He felt validated and wanted.
Still, I thought I could stop him playing simply by telling him to, so I tried. But he couldn't stop. He would take junk food and pizza up to his room so he didn't have to break for meals. Our kitchen was flooded three times when he began running baths that were forgotten and ended up pouring through our ceilings.
Meanwhile, I was becoming stressed – I found myself crying at traffic lights when I was driving. We took Connor to a top psychiatrist who put him on antidepressants, although Connor refused to take them and we decided not to force the point.
And then we were incredibly lucky: a gaming addiction specialist flew in from Amsterdam to see Connor and warned us that recovery would only happen when Connor was ready. He told us to keep talking, even if it was only a few minutes a day, to keep communication open. In the meantime, Connor failed his exams. We sent him to a tutorial college, determined to keep his education on track.
And then came that night when, out of the blue, he confided his desire to leave the virtual world and rejoin the real one. I don't know if there was any trigger, but we agreed a strategy. First, he sold his online character – so carefully established – for about £500; incredibly, these virtual lives can sell for several thousand pounds at online auctions.
Worried he would offend his online game-playing friends, he told them in advance and offered to stay friends via email. Some were huffy, but a couple showed their friendship was genuine, and are still in touch.
Experts warn that children can suffer cold turkey when they stop gaming, as their bodies have become accustomed to floods of hormones such as dopamine and adrenaline. Fortunately, Connor didn't seem to experience physical withdrawal.
Instead, our biggest concern was helping him get back on track with homework. Children who get lost in computers miss out on the discipline and structure of modern learning. But Connor was determined to make up for lost time. During his final A-level he even moved into his father's flat, away from his computer, so that he wouldn't be distracted.
The night before his results I was climbing the walls with nerves – but he passed with good grades. When he told me he'd won a place to study economics at a good university, I wept with happiness and relief.
On his first day as a fresher, as I steeled myself to leave him in his hall of residence, I asked if he would be OK. Connor said: "I am not coming home until Christmas – I will stick it out." Imagine how delighted I was when he achieved his aim, returning for his holiday to tell me that nothing made him happier than to sit in the shared kitchen, listen to the hum of conversation and be part of it.
In the end, I am proud to say, Connor's recovery was all down to him.