My son is nearly 15 and my only child. His father and I separated some years ago and they see each other regularly. My son also has a good relationship with my partner, who has lived with us for a few years. He has always excelled at school and is a talented musician. When he was younger he was confident and eloquent beyond his years; he could make friends or have a conversation with anyone.
I have seen huge changes in him. Before Covid, he played in a couple of bands at school and had made friends with some older children through school productions. With lockdown, these friendships melted away and even at school he has been unable to mix with different year groups.
In the first lockdown, my son retreated into an online gaming world and has not emerged. I am now concerned that he has a gaming addiction: in the summer holidays, he has barely come out of his room, other than to eat. He is in pretty much constant communication with other gamers online, but I feel these are not meaningful relationships.
I try to talk to him most days about how he might try to re-establish connections and friendships but he is usually dismissive of my advice. He has remained engaged with his studies and had excellent end-of-year grades, but the summer holidays have brought into sharper focus his social problems and reliance on online gaming.
I understand your concerns. Your longer letter painted a picture of a bright, popular boy who seems to have suffered a fracture with his friendship groups and sought solace in gaming, which must seem very alien to you. Your son, like a lot of people, gets on best in a mixed-age group. He may always have struggled with getting on with “just” his peers. Lockdown – and Covid bubbles – highlighted this.
Let’s look at the positives. I consulted psychotherapist Rebecca Harris (psychotherapy.org.uk), who specialises in gaming addiction. She pointed out that your son is still going to school, doing well and coming down for meals – all good signs. I realise that gaming, or anything involving an online life, is terrifying for many parents. But for lots of people it also has benefits.
“What we tell people in the clinic to look out for,” says Harris, “are signs that gaming has become problematic: someone is not able to stop or control it; considers gaming more important than anything else; is still gaming despite negative consequences.” It doesn’t seem as if your son is at this stage.
“Your son remains engaged in his studies, so he’s still in the real world and can still focus on things other than gaming. It sounds as if your son was fine, then lockdown happened and he did lots of gaming – which isn’t unusual. But then he went back to school and the friendships didn’t come back. I wonder if this is more to do with his friends.”
In other words, perhaps gaming is filling a void that was already there for him. Harris questioned if it is useful for you to ask almost daily what he’s doing regarding his friendships. “I wonder if that’s underlining the fact that no one is calling him or [it seems] wants to see him, and whether that is reinforcing the anxiety for both of you?” This could just drive him more into seeking safety in his gaming world. Is there another adult who could check gently what is going on with your son? His dad, your partner, or someone else?
If you are still worried, contact the National Centre for Gaming Disorders (email: firstname.lastname@example.org), to which anyone over 12 in England and Wales can refer themselves. Here are two useful websites: parentzone.org.uk for helping you navigate the online world; and taminggaming.com, which has information about the games.
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