Monday 21 October 2019

Addictive Fortnite fad is so much more than the latest craze for young children

We might dismiss Fortnite as just another trend, but this game is no fidget spinner, writes Sarah Caden

Fortnite: ‘It’s not like the game where they kill prostitutes,’ said one parent
Fortnite: ‘It’s not like the game where they kill prostitutes,’ said one parent

Sarah Caden

Have you seen a kid do the Floss yet? Even the kids who aren't playing Fortnite, where it originated, are doing this dance which, if you think about it too much, seems to be about flossing your crotch.

These kids have picked it up from the kids who are playing Fortnite and, as the child I first saw Flossing told me, in that Southern California drawl a lot of them have now: everyone in her class is obsessed with Fortnite.

The boys, in particular, are obsessed, apparently, contacting each other via the game and playing in linked groups until late on school nights, then talking about little else the next day. This child is in second class. She's eight.

The video game Fortnite is officially for over-12s. This classification seems to be fairly irrelevant.

There's a nine-year-old girl in the UK in rehab for addiction to the game. A child who was urinating in front of the screen because she wouldn't stop playing. A child who turned violent when her parents tried to stop her playing.

Of course, she is the extreme end of addiction, but the addictive nature of Fortnite is now widely acknowledged. A free-to-download game, which makes it easier to access and less objectionable to parents, Fortnite is what's called a battle royale game. Each contest starts out with 100 players, including you, and the aim is to eliminate the 99 and end up as the last man standing.

By eliminate, I mean kill, but the cohort who defend the fact that there are kids as young as four playing this will say that the killing is very cartoonish.

"It's not close-up killing," one parent told me. "The characters are very far away and it's not bloody."

"It's not like the game where they kill prostitutes," said another, reassuringly.

Others will also point out that because you can link up with friends via the game and create cooperating gangs, there is a team-building element to Fortnite.

Further, there are construction and survival-skill components to the game, so some will say that there's an educational benefit in that. Fortnite, many have said, picks up where Minecraft left off for children under 10.

That's all well and good, but experts in addiction say that neither of these points make a blind bit of difference in terms of how Fortnite is burrowing into the brains of children and teens and getting them hooked.

Apparently, the manner in which you win or lose battles in 20-minute bursts plays into the young brain's desire for repeated, regular hits of high-inducing dopamine that is hard to resist.

They win, they lose, they go again and again, until many are playing for hours on end, entirely detached from reality.

That, apparently, is where the addiction starts.

But addiction aside, because that's easy to dismiss as the extreme, there are other facets to the Fortnite craze that are unsettling.

Obviously, there's the violence. The game is over-12s for a reason. There is killing in it. As a rule, parents are against their kids watching violent films.

There was all sorts of tut-tutting last week when little Prince George was playing with a toy gun. And yet, it seems to be all right in this context because it's only a computer game and everyone knows they're not reality. Really, do the under-10s really grasp that?

Then, there's the fact that children have the ability to communicate with each other and, potentially, with strangers. A lot of parents will say that they have the settings controlled so that there can be no communication, but that runs the risk of children being left out within their group of Fortnite-playing friends, so my own research suggests that parents cave in.

These are, for the most part, parents who would, recently have supported Ireland's adoption of 16 as the digital age of consent, when there was a suggestion that it would be set as low as 13.

These are, for the most part, parents with concerns about kids getting smartphones for their first Holy Communions and engaging too young with social media.

They tend to be less than delighted with the idea of primary school children texting or messaging online late into the evening. They worry about games apps that have the potential for infiltration by groomers or online blackmailers of children. Because these things happen.

The parents letting their children play Fortnite, in my experience, are sane people. And yet, particularly among boys, it's widely played by children aged seven and up.

Part of the reason for that is the interactive element: they can play online with their friends. That creates the peer pressure. If everyone in school is talking about nothing but Fortnite, then no one wants their child to be left out.

On UTV last week, Holly Willoughby said that she felt like a bad parent for not having Fortnite in the house. Her nine-year-old son, Willoughby said, had played it at his friends' houses, but she wouldn't have it in hers, and she felt guilty because he was being left out.

As it happens, this arose during an interview with a woman saying that her five-year-old was borderline addicted to Fortnite; completely disconnected from the family and reality and impossible to reach.

One parent I spoke to, with three boys ranging from mid-teens to 10, said that hers had it. And because they could download it for free, she said, they got it themselves, without her agreement or assessment of it in advance.

She accepted it as the latest craze. She justified it as not as bad as something like Grand Theft Auto, with its misogyny and up-close violence.

This mother also rationalised Fortnite as just the latest craze. "Next year there'll be something else," she said, then conceding that her boys were impossible to shift from in front of the screen. And that it was hardly comparable to a fidget spinner.

The other response to concerns over the age and the intensity at which children are playing Fortnite is to shout 'parent-shaming'.

'Parent-shaming' is the new racist or sexist or Nazi. Shout it in the face of any questioning of a choice made in regard to children, and it's immediately shut down. Because no one wants to be the nasty prejudiced parent-shamer. Sure we're all only trying to do our best; we should be supporting, not shaming, each other. Or so it goes.

We're being led by the nose without really thinking about what we're being led in to.

Is this a fad without consequence, a bit of fun being blown out of proportion? Or are we just so scared to be the ones left out of it that we're following along like sheep?

And, perhaps, in terms of our kids, doing anything for a quiet life. A quiet life where they're off shooting people for fun, but still, quiet for us.

These though are short-term gains - what fad for the under-10s next?

Parental controls: Top tips

Decide an acceptable amount of time and fix regular hours. Use your internet service provider to set clear time limits on devices such as PlayStation, Xbox and PC — executing these remotely cuts the face-to-face confrontation.

Have clear consequences for rule-breaking — swearing, not stopping, not sharing — and execute them remorselessly.

Have a regular time slot for chores and homework. Aim to get these completed before children go on screens.

Communicate with other parents about schedules. Aim to power down around the same time.

Sign them up for a regular after-school activity, and make sure they know there is no gaming if they miss it.

Don’t let them play in their bedrooms. Keep consoles and screens as much as possible in a common space.

Sunday Independent

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