Gaming Withdrawal at Camp

Bob Ditter
July 2019

Gaming Withdrawal at Camp

Dear Bob,

Over the past two summers we have noticed something somewhat alarming among campers ages eight to 11 at our camp who identify as male. What we have seen is that in the first few days at camp, many of them seem irritable, unhappy, and have trouble getting into activities in any joyful way. They also have trouble forming closer relationships with their counselors and one another. One of our camp doctors, who is a pediatrician as well as a parent, suspects that many of our boys may be in a kind of “withdrawal” from many hours of at-home gaming (specifically from the game Fortnite). Do you have any thoughts about this? Are there any suggestions about what we can do to alleviate this pattern?

Pondering in the Pines

Dear Pondering,

There is good reason to believe that your camp doc is onto something. According to a recent article in the Boston Globe (Teitell, 2019), Fortnite: Battle Royale has grown exponentially to the point where there are currently over 200 million players, a large percentage of whom are boys between the ages of eight and 16. Fortnite is an online video game developed by Epic Games that is released as different software packages with different game modes that otherwise share the same general gameplay and game engine (Wikipedia, 2019). According to Ofir Turel, a professor of information systems and decision sciences at California State University Fullerton, “game makers have taken a lesson from slot machine designers and started employing a variable reward schedule.” Combined with the game’s flashy colors and the element of online social interaction, this variable reward system trains young brains to crave playing. “Kids are especially vulnerable to this ‘variable-reward’ mechanism because their brains are still imbalanced,” he explains. “They have almost fully developed reward processing brain systems, but their self-control systems are not yet fully developed” (Teitell, 2019).

As a practicing therapist, I can tell you that one of the greatest sources of discord in many of the families I see today has to do with parents’ attempts to regulate their (primarily) male-identifying children’s Fortnite playing time. (Girls typically spend less time gaming and more time on social media platforms like Instagram, which poses its own challenges). What typically happens is that parents begin to notice their kids playing for long, uninterrupted periods of time on weekends, declining other activities and family time. They often find their kids sneaking the game during the week, forgoing homework and other social activities. As kids get pulled into the game more and more, parents begin to “make deals” with regard to playing time. A typical deal begins well enough, because most kids are so eager to play they will agree to most anything just to get access. The trouble comes when it is time for the child to stop. This is the point at which the family drama kicks into high gear. Many kids kick and scream, fight, slam doors, and become alternately belligerent or listless. And you think you have problems at camp!

According to Michael Rich, a pediatrician and director of the Clinic for Interactive Media and Internet Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital, he has yet to see a patient struggling with Fortnite who does not also have an underlying issue. “In fact, we are currently characterizing PIMU” — Problematic Interactive Media Use — “not as a diagnosis, but as a syndrome, a group of symptoms of diagnoses ranging from ADHD to anxiety, depression, or mood disorders that manifest themselves in the interactive media environment” (Teitell, 2019).

It is certainly reasonable to suspect that over-gaming at home may be contributing to the behavior you are seeing at camp. The question is, what can you do about it? Unfortunately, the problem with gaming and the negative side effects begin at home, so my suggestion is that you go on a campaign to educate your parents. Here is what I recommend:

  1. Start by sharing this article with your camp parents. You can also give them the reference for the Boston Globe article I’ve cited.
  2. Share with parents the notion that all kids go through an adjustment when they come to camp — getting used to new friends, a new schedule, a new level of physical activity, new caretaking adults, and so on. Tell them that one factor in that adjustment is the degree to which their kids may have been playing Fortnite or other video or online games at home, which they will be giving up “cold turkey” when they come to camp. (Most parents are relieved that their kids will be off screens while they are at camp, but they underestimate the impact of this sudden withdrawal).
  3. Suggest to parents that they ween their kids off social media, games, and screens in general several days or a week before they come to camp. Unfortunately, what typically happens is just the opposite. In the days leading up to camp, many kids try to get as much playing time (or social media and screen time) in as they can, knowing they won’t have access at camp. This binging produces exactly the kinds of behaviors you describe in your email: irritability, restlessness, general dysphoria, and difficulty enjoying less highly stimulating activities.
  4. The more play time kids can get in with friends before they head off to camp that do not rely on gaming, the better!

Once at camp, another strategy is to educate the counselors who will be overseeing these youngsters and instructing them to have some cabin or group chats with the boys about what we know about the effects of suddenly giving up Fortnite and other intense games. Not that these talks will prevent the behavior you are seeing, but they may provide an outlet around which the boys can bond; that is, their shared “grief” over not having the game at ready access. I would also encourage you and your counselors to engage these boys in fast, stimulating, active, large-group games — like capture the flag, steal the bacon, man overboard (also known as ships and sailors), bombardment, and even gaga — as a way of replacing that highly stimulating gaming behavior with physical activity. It will not only help the boys get through their gaming withdrawal, but it will help them connect with their cabin mates and counselors more quickly!

References

Teitell, B. (2019, March 31). “Fortnite” may be a virtual game, but it’s having real-life, dangerous effects. The Boston Globe. Retrieved from bostonglobe.com/metro/2019/03/31/unexplained-weight-loss-children-boston-nutritionist-makes-her-diagnosis-fortnite/eNMmGkK814IOsCwDDk2ZPN/story.html

Wikipedia. (2019). Fortnite. Retrieved from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fortnite

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. For more information about the author, visit BobDitter.com.