Australian children as young as seven years old are launching aggressive attacks on their parents, lying to get out of school, and avoiding family holidays to play Fortnite marathons, as the video game phenomenon recruits a new generation of underage players.
Education and neuroscience experts warn excessive and premature use of the video game, and those like it, is leading to a ballooning crisis for Australian families, some of whom are now checking their children into dedicated rehabilitation centres to wean them off screens and reintegrate them into social, family and school life.
And psychiatrists are calling for greater recognition of the problem by the Australian government so more affected families can afford to seek treatment.
Despite its release more than a year ago, Fortnite: Battle Royale remains at the centre of underage video game obsessions, experts say, with the multi million-dollar phenomenon now reporting more than 250 million players worldwide.
The Epic Games creation, which has been described as Hunger Games meets Call of Duty, even broke its own record earlier this year, with more than 10.8 million people playing simultaneously.
While the game features several modes of play, the best known sees 100 players dropped on to an ever-shrinking battlefield where they must kill all other players to be the last avatar standing.
The violence is cartoonish, the game free to play and available across smartphones and consoles, with developers making money from personalising characters, buying victory dances, and loot boxes.
Learning expert and neuroscience communicator Jill Sweatman said Fortnite’s low entry price continued to attract children, even though many were too young and mentally unprepared to handle its content.
“Children as young as seven and eight (years old) have been overly committed to Fortnite and this game has an age recommendation of 13,” she said.
“You have kids from a very young age exposed to significant violence. There are short-term consequences and significant long-term consequences to this.”
Ms Sweatman said she had witnessed extreme examples of Fortnite addiction even in Australian children deemed old enough to play the game.
Fortnite gaming obsessions have become so pervasive in Australia that a growing number of psychologists now specialise in treatment for gaming addiction, and gaming rehabilitation and treatment centres have been established in Sydney and Melbourne.
Sydney child psychiatrist Dr Philip Tam said he had referred some patients to gaming detox centres but they were “quite pricey” and, similarly, extended private therapy could be a large burden on single-parent or low-income households in desperate need of help.
Cyber safety educator Leonie Smith said primary and high schools were also reporting problems from students obsessed with the online shooting game.
“This week, teachers were telling me there were several cases where kids were avoiding school to play Fortnite,” she said.
“One boy told his Mum he was being bullied at school and he didn’t want to go. When she told the teacher, she found out it was a complete story. He was staying up all night playing Fortnite and then couldn’t function the next day.” Why is this game so popular with kids?
Peer pressure to play Fortnite is enormous, experts attest, and starts at primary school.
Cyber safety educator Leonie Smith says other big factors in the game’s success with kids are its free entry price and quirky, humorous, cartoon style.
“It’s the blood and the gore and the realism that parents don’t like in games,” she says. “Fortnite looks very palatable to parents. It looks like Alice in Wonderland, all these beautiful bright colours and characters running around.” What dangers should I be aware of?
There are several potential hazards for children playing Fortnite. Psychologists warn parents to pay close attention to how much time children are investing in the game, and whether play is affecting family, social, and school life.
Parents also need to be vigilant about how much kids spend on in-game purchases, and whether schoolyard bullies or unknown adults are speaking to their children. There is no in-game chat available in Fortnite mobile apps.
And some neuroscience experts argue young children should not be playing the game at all, warning that early exposure and extended sessions with the game can “impair learning”.
Fortnite is the latest game of craze and there will be other games in the future that will have an impact on our children- may I therefore recommend that you read the following recommendations:
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