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Computer games

Saturday, April 20th, 2019
Ian Williamson

Computer games

We need to wake up to what’s really going on with video computer games.A lot of the chatter about gaming centres on issues about whether it makes our children more aggressive or not. This is not the most important issue. What we need to be thinking about is whether gaming is becoming something much more akin to gambling.  Here is an abbreviated outline of some of the issues we need to be thinking carefully about. You can make your own mind up about it.

The video gaming industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the US. The rise of casual gaming on mobile platforms has led to a massive expansion of the industry. The structure of the games has changed as well. In the 1990’s video games were ‘premium’, meaning you paid once to gain access to the game for life, rather like buying a book. Video game companies have shifted to more profitable models known as ‘Free to play”. The aim of the FTP game is to get as many players playing for free, with the hope that some, if not all, will keep buying in-game content.

In-game game content includes things like ‘visual enhancements’, ‘digital trophies’  and ‘virtual goods’.

These companies are increasingly using ideas and technologies that are used in casinos to keep children playing for longer and in many cases get them addicted. Commonly they use fake currency. This helps create a disassociation effect in the player, meaning that he is more likely to  spend more using a fake currency than a real one. This is the same psychology behind the use of the credit card.

They have added another dimension from casinos known as ‘progress gates’. The typical slot machine charges you to keep playing as soon as you lose, this is known as a ‘hard progress gate’. By way of contrast a ‘soft progress gate’ prevents a player from playing for a period of time, which can be bypassed by paying to keep playing. Hard and soft progress gates are part and parcel of video games.

Among the other more dubious gifts from the gaming industry is the the ‘loot box’. This is in effect an in-game lottery ticket; for a small amount of money a player can purchase a variety of items that promises to enhance the game experience. For example in FIFA 18 a Premium gold pack ‘might’ get you a top player and note the emphasis on ‘might’. The odds are something between one in eleven and one in thirteen of this happening. You are more than likely to get a low level player that you have to trade if you can. These Loot boxes have been at the centre of the rise in ‘smartphone ‘freemium’ games which although free to download cant be properly enjoyed unless the player pays for in-app boosts.

Perhaps the most important game changer if you will excuse the pun is that the games now use the variable-ratio reinforcement reward system. This was a system designed by behavioural psychologists to eliminate aberrant behaviours. This same psychology is behind Fixed Odds Betting Terminals, FOBT, that are known as the ‘crack cocaine’ of gambling. The end goal is to keep people playing on the machines regardless of whether they win or not. Computer games use the same psychology. This system comes from behavioural psychology and works as follows. The theory is that you don’t reward behaviour every time you play. You vary how often a person gets a reward when they accomplish the target behaviour ( in this case keep on playing the game). You might start to reward them say every 5 times or 7 times they play randomly until the behaviour you want is established ( ie they are locked into playing the game ). Once the behaviour is established ( the player is addicted//or in the zone if you prefer) then you can lengthen the time between rewards. It is proven that eventually the extended time between rewards becomes no deterrent to playing because the behaviour is now hard wired into the brain. The end goal is to induce the ‘state of flow’ or being in ‘the zone’, in which all of the player’s attention and consciousness is pulled into the game and nothing in the outside world matters.This helps explain the explosive rages our children get into when we try drag them away from the game.

Of course while the system was originally devised for eliminating aberrant behaviours it is now the science behind FOBT and more importantly gaming. The question parents have to get to grips with is that unlimited playing of computer games is not good for your child whatever they tell you to the contrary. By all means let them play but it has to be time limited.

Are there lessons we need to learn from the Molly Russell tragedy ?

The tragic suicide of 14 year old Molly Russell has once again raised the thorny issue of the influence of social media on teenager’s lives. There will likely be much huffing and puffing from government and media companies about this tragedy but it’s more likely that nothing will be done about it. The bottom line is that parents will have to deal with it as best they can.

This piece is an attempt to offer parents some help and guidance. Let’s start with some facts about adolescent development. It is a period of immense turmoil and insecurity. Intense anxieties about self are never far from the surface even with the most secure of teenagers. The second important fact is that all teenagers have a very ‘private self’ that they don’t share with their parents. This needs to be borne in mind so parents don’t fall into the trap of believing their teens tell them ‘everything’. The bottom line is teens are invariably economical with the truth.  It’s a fallacy to believe that because you have a close relationship with your teen that you know exactly what they are up to and what they are feeling. 

With these thoughts as the back drop where precisely does social media come into all this. The first thing to remember is that social media is a 24/7 evaluation site where teenagers habits, compulsions and vulnerabilities are laid bare for everyone to comment on. Envies and jealousies abound unchecked, it’s a veritable bear pit. No teenager however stable and secure is going to be immune from the anxiety inducing effects of these evaluations. The second thing to remember that the sites are specially engineered to keep teens on them for as long as possible. In other words they are addictive.

I suspect many reading this already know what I am talking about,  but feel powerless to do anything about it. If we are honest, too many of us take refuge in the myth that everything works out in the end and/or its just a phase they are going through. This, to my mind, is a cop out. What it really means is that it’s too difficult and time consuming to do anything about. 

In order to try to keep a lid on all this we need to be clear about what does and does not constitute teenage privacy and we need to know how to deal with teenage tantrums.

In my experience we seem to be in a muddle about this privacy issue. I frequently hear parents say they are uncomfortable about looking at their teens phone or tracking what kind of sites they visit on the internet. They argue that teenagers are entitled to their privacy. In theory this is fine. But my question is privacy to do what ? To make the picture more confusing many parents are adamant that they know exactly where their teens are when they go out for the evening sometimes to the extent of putting tracking devices on their phones or phoning other parents. In short most parents would never dream of letting their young teenager go out in the evening without knowing where they are going and what they are doing.  We don’t consider this an invasion of privacy but an issue of their safety and here is the rub. We don’t actually think that what they engage with online is a safety issue and this is where we get it wrong. In my opinion adolescents are at just as much at risk from what they are looking at on their screens as they are when they go out for the evening.

So what do we need to do?  Here are some thoughts.

  1. A young teen (13-15 or it could be 12-15) can have a password on their phone/screen but the parents should know what that password is ? This doesn’t mean that parents should be looking at their messages every 5 minutes but the fact that they can will have some effect on inhibiting what they write or watch. If they wont agree then I suggest you remove their phone for a while.
  2. No screens in their bedrooms. If they want privacy to call one of their friends that is different  but absolutely no screens/phones in bedrooms.
  3. They have to hand in screens and phones at bedtime.
  4. Use the technology that is available to control how much time they can spend on these sites. This is especially important if they take their phones to school. The less time they spend on social media sites and the like the better.

I don’t for one minute think your teenager is going to greet any of the above with anything other than absolute fury and if we are totally honest its the fury that intimidates us. The volcanic rages, the verbal abuse are exhausting to deal with, but if we are parenting our adolescents on the basis of how fearful we are of their reactions then we aren’t doing our job properly.  Try to hold in mind that adolescent fury is little more than a sophisticated temper tantrum, there is a lot of noise but not much else, stick to your guns. Also hold in the forefront of your mind the fact that having a smartphone isn’t a basic human right despite their protests to the contrary.

            

Do your children read

Do your children read ?

I will come clean on this one, mine dont. They will read magazines and novellas but not the long, difficult, and complex tomes. No Bleak House or the Brothers Karamazov. These books are too long and complicated for them. They would much rather watch a screen. But does it really matter that they don’t read these sorts of books? According to Maryanne Wolf, writing in the Guardian newspaper, it most certainly does. The gist of her argument goes something like this. We are becoming a generation of skim readers. We dont have the time or the inclination to grapple with complex story lines or challenging ideas. The brains ability to read is subtly and rapidly changing as a result of this process.

She writes,

‘Neuroscience shows us that the acquisition of literacy necessitated a new circuit in our species’ brain more than 6,000 years ago. That circuit evolved from a very simple mechanism for decoding basic information, like the number of goats in one’s herd, to the present, highly elaborated reading brain. My research depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight.’

This is powerful stuff. She goes on,

‘We know from research that the reading circuit is not given to human beings through a genetic blueprint like vision or language; it needs an environment to develop. Further, it will adapt to that environment’s requirements – from different writing systems to the characteristics of whatever medium is used. If the dominant medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like the current digital medium, so will the reading circuit. As UCLA psychologist Patricia Greenfield writes, the result is that less attention and time will be allocated to slower, time-demanding deep reading processes, like inference, critical analysis and empathy, all of which are indispensable to learning at any age’.

Research suggests that these ‘deep reading processes’ are gradually being lost. This has implications for all aspects of life, from understanding contracts to following complex ideas. The old adage from neuroscience, ‘use it or lose it,’ remains true. 

If we accept her arguments then the next question is what do we do about it as parents? In one sense we are faced with a variation on a familiar parenting theme- the importance of delayed gratification to our children’s development. A 400 page novel may not provide the kind of instant gratification that other mediums do. We need to train our children, but how do we do that?

Lets start with what we can’t do. We can’t sit them down and force them to starting reading Lord of the Rings or In Search of Lost Time . And if we could we would more than likely put them off reading for life. But we can introduce them to reading by carefully selecting the appropriate material and we can set aside a time in the week for reading just like many parents set aside time for learning to swim or playing the piano.

 

How many of us actually think or research what sort of books might engage our children, not many I suspect. The bottom line is that once they can read we leave ‘all that stuff’ to school.

Once we have selected the reading material we perhaps need to factor in a time during the week when they have to settle down to read. Might it be possible to have a ‘reading evening’ rather than watching TV or scrolling through phones. And could we commit to discussing what they have read in the same way we discuss TV programmes or films. None of this seems particularly difficult given the array of other more complex parenting problems we have to deal with. It just needs us to commit. If Maryanne Wolf is right then by committing to ‘deep’ reading we are not only broadening and deepening our children’s understanding of themselves and the world they live in but we are helping them live more fulfilling lives.  

 

why all the fuss about mobile phones ?

Why all the fuss about mobile phones ?

Matt Hancock the culture secretary has suggested that schools ban mobile phones. This follows on from President Macron’s banning of mobile phones in French schools.  What has brought about these dramatic interventions ? The debate about whether mobile phones and social media are good or bad for children has been going on for some while. The research is far from conclusive but the general drift seems to suggest that they are bad for children’s mental health. 

In order to think a bit more clearly about this issue it’s helpful to reclassify what we are talking about. They are phones, but in name only, more relevantly smartphones are 24/7 entertainment centres, children hardly ever use the actual telephone function. 

Many parents duck the issue of phone use in the home despite knowing that they are disruptive and sometimes destructive to family life. If you have ever tried to take one off of a teenager you will know first hand how difficult it is to get between a teenager and his/her phone.

There are two issues I want to look at that might get us start taking this problem more seriously at home.

The first is the issue of addiction. Children’s screen time has been rapidly increasing. Teenagers spend up to 9 hours a day online. Older teenagers on average check their phone 2500 times per day. The top 10% look at their phone 5500 times day. 

Every time a child checks his/her phone their brain releases a chemical called dopamine. This is the chemical that the brain releases when you gamble, take drugs, drink, watch porn or play a computer game. This has important consequences for the child’s developing brain. It is also the reason they can go into a meltdown when you take their phone away. They are experiencing a form of withdrawal symptoms. Computer games and social media sites are specifically designed to keep children on them as long as possible. In other words they are designed to be addictive. 

It is also worth bearing in mind that time spent looking at a screen is at the cost of real face to face time. This is important because it’s how our children learn about social interactions.

The second less serious but nevertheless important issue is what happens to their thinking when they look a their phone. The research is now quite clear. If you look at your phone for even a second it takes 25 minutes for your thinking to get back to the level prior to checking your phone. This has huge implications for productivity generally but is especially relevant to children and their school work. Many teenagers find it difficult to do their work without their phone at hand, they are anxious that they will miss something. However there are two important consequences of this phone checking. Firstly any assignments will take substantially longer than they should and secondly the work will be of an inferior quality to that which could be produced if they could turn their phones off before they started.

My three suggestions are;

1  Give some thought as to whether they really need a smartphone. Just because they want one   doesn’t  mean they should have one.

2 Try and get them to turn off their phones when they do their homework.

3  Implement an electronic shutdown in the evenings so they get respite from the incessant demands of social media. 

These suggestions aren’t easy to implement but in the light of the research do we have a choice ?   

 

tips for the exam season

Tips for the exam season.

The exam season is nearly upon us. For teenagers it’s a difficult and stressful time. It’s their equivalent of a mini Olympics, a one shot deal. Frantic revision sessions, or not as the case may be, can be accompanied by sleepless nights and much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the family.

If you have teens going through exams it’s worth thinking about how to best support them.

A crucial developmental issue to get hold of at the outset is that this age group are experts in avoiding reality, its too painful. Deadlines and time constraints feel a bit too much like adult life. It’s much more comfortable to live in a world of shifting goalposts. The tension between these two world views has to be grasped if you are to support them.

The second point is don’t fall into the trap of labelling your teen lazy. This isn’t helpful, it is better to understand that their lack of effort is more likely a fear of failing or not meeting expectations. 

Lets start with what not to do.

  1. Don’t deliver monologues on what to do. These are pointless. They know what to do they just cant do it.
  2. Don’t frighten them with stories about how their life prospects will be irreparably damaged if they don’t work. They are perfectly aware that exams are important.
  3. Don’t buy into the ‘I don’t care’ mindset. Panic is just below the surface. 

All these tactics do is create more anxiety and more fear. 

What to do ?

  1. Create realistic work routines. Little and often is better than endless hours of study.  The issue here is productivity not number of hours. I am highly sceptical of those teens who like to tell others they study for hours and hours at a time. 
  2. Try and create a peaceful study area preferably not in their bedroom. This is more of an issue for those studying for GCSE’s.
  3. Get them to agree to hand over their electronic devices for the duration of their study period. Recent research has found that if teens check their phone for 1 second it takes the brain 20 minutes to get back to the previous level of functioning. This is a colossal waste of time. There is absolutely no justification for having their phone by their side as they study.
  4. If they are reluctant to study talk to their about their fear of failing. Reinforce the notion that it is better to try and fail than not try at all. Not trying has a negative effect on self esteem
  5. Try and get them to let go of worrying about grades ( outcomes) and concentrate on putting in a shift on a daily basis ( process). If you have done your best then the grades become less of a focus. 
  6. Make sure they have a revision timetable that leaves plenty of time for rest and relaxation.
  7. Make sure they get to bed at a reasonable hour.

 

whats your view of social media and media platforms ?

What’s your view of social media or media platforms ? As parents you might be a Facebook user, even a WhatsApp aficionado. You may even watch a movie/TV series.However the chances are these are ‘add ons’ rather than central to your life. But this is not so for our children. Read and inwardly digest these following stats.

Teens are spending up to 9 hours a day on social platforms.
30% of all time spent online is now allocated to social media.
60% of social media time is facilitated by a mobile service.
And here is the really worry trend- all these figures are rapidly on the increase.

To my mind it is possible to imagine a time in the not too distant future when these activities and devices will have a bigger influence over our children’s lives that we will as parents. Thats a bold statement I know but cast your mind back to the summer when you asked your teen if he or she would like to come out for a walk and they said no they wanted to stay inside on their phones. Or consider this 1/2 of all pre school children spend on average 8hrs a week online.

What we are also increasingly coming to understand is that these activities are highly addictive and this is something we need to get our heads round. If our teens were smoking dope or drinking alcohol 9 hours a day we would be in total panic yet somehow we treat these activities as benign. Benign they are most certainly not. Every time your child clicks onto one of these sites and reads a message or sees a picture and checks the ‘likes’ or ‘dislikes’ the brain releases a feel good chemical called dopamine. This is the same chemical that the brain releases when you drink, take drugs, gamble or watch porn. It’s highly addictive. The bottom line is that while you’re sitting quietly enjoying the peace and quiet of family life downstairs, your teen is upstairs getting quietly addicted. Try taking a teens phone away and you will more often than not witness full blown withdrawal symptoms.

It is imperative that we get some control over these devices and their use if social media. It is not an option to do nothing. At the very least there needs to be some clear guidelines for their use. How about the following,

1 No phones at meal tables or during family activities.
2 An evening lockdown.

Sexual assaults by children

Sexual assaults by children.

Recent figures show an alarming rise in reports of peer on peer abuse. Almost 30,000 children are reported to have been sexually assaulted by another child in the last 4 years.
These figures indicate a 71% increase. Furthermore sex offences by 10 year olds had more than doubled in the last 4 years. Only 26% of offences reported to the police resulted in any further action being taken.

The recent stats on are shocking and deeply troubling. Simplistically we might put this rise down to the increasing influence of pornography on young minds. This is now well established and rightly acknowledged as harmful. All the articles that I read were rightly concerned but none had the slightest idea what to do about this subject. The bottom line is that you can’t stop young people watching porn. It seems to me that as parents and educators we have to step up to the plate on this one and I don’t for one minute think this is an easy task.

If we break the subject down it might make it easier to think about. There has to be a dialogue between adults and teens about pornography led by us. A kind of nuts and bolts approach would do to start with;

It’s fundamentally about abuse and not about love or relationships.

Most of the videos are about about female submission to male fantasies plus or minus abuse.

It has nothing whatsoever to do with building a relationship, it’s all about gratification.

If you watch enough of it, it will mess up your relationships.

There is enough here to promote plenty of discussion with your teenager.
Here are 2 further points to remember;
Don’t expect them to know about all the above thats why we have to lead the discussion.
This sort of discussion is important for all teenagers not just boys.

A second line of enquiry might involve talking about relationships more generally, respect, consent, loyalty. Abstract though this may seem it does resonate with teenagers who mostly are very concerned about relationships. This can also include how they square their sexual behaviour with their conscience. This boils down to the question of whether they feel happy with their relational and sexual behaviour. What they tell their friends isn’t always a true reflection of how they really feel, guilt and shame are never far from the surface even with the most confident of adolescents.
What really caught my attention however was the stat that sexual offences by 10 year olds had more than doubled in the last 4 years. I repeat sexual offences by 10 year olds. This poses some difficult and thought provoking questions, are children becoming sexualised younger than we had previously thought? Do 10 year olds really have sexual fantasies that they then act out in assaults on other children? Or are these acts not really sexual in motive at all but a sort of perversion of relational dynamics? It would be instructive to know exactly what these children are thinking when they sexually assault another child.
I have no clear cut answer to this complex question but I do know that children as young as 10 years of age do have access to pornography. The fact that 10 year olds are involved in this at all is a huge cause for concern.

Can your teenage do the deal

Can your teenager do the deal?

 

So many of the arguments and meltdowns we have with our teenagers are about not being able to stick to ‘the deal’. But what exactly is the deal, why do they need to be able to stick to it ?

 

We have to understand that nirvana from the adolescent perspective is complete independence without responsibility; our job is to link the two. It is not an easy task and that’s why we often end up having the equivalent of World War 3 when we try to bring the two together. The reason they need to be able to do the deal is because they need to learn an important life lesson that actions have consequences, hence the familiar adolescent cry of, ‘its not my fault’ or ‘its nothing to do with me’. God forbid they have to accept responsibility for their actions!!

 

Let’s take a familiar battleground, negotiating a curfew. We need to agree with our teen what is an appropriate time to be home. Most teenagers can do the deal at least theoretically. However lurking in the background is an unspoken proviso;

‘I said I would agree to be home at 12 but what I didn’t say is that if I’m having fun then I’m not going to stick to it’.

There is nothing malevolent about this. It is merely a reflection of their immaturity. When they are under pressure from the impulse to do what they want the deal goes out of the window.

 

There are some important parenting lessons to be understood here. The first is that learning to do the deal is a process that usually takes a long time so don’t get into heated monologues about the why’s and wherefores of not being able to do it. If they break the deal then impose a sanction. Don’t impose anything draconian, maybe they are grounded the next weekend. Don’t discuss it or negotiate. It’s not about you being strict or liberal. It’s a consequence of their choice to break the deal, remember actions have consequences.

 

The other more important consequence is that your teenager’s attitude to and success in making deals will help you determine how much freedom they can manage. Freedom  should not be determined by age but by their success in being able to stick to deals.

A poor capacity to be able to stick to a deal is usually linked to poor impulse control (immature decision making) and this can put teenagers at risk. These kinds of teenagers need much more containment (less freedom). Don’t give in to their rant about curtailment of their liberty; it’s about keeping them safe.

 

I’m only too aware that theory and practice are very different beasts. A feisty teenager won’t welcome what I have suggested I can assure you, but think back to those long forgotten wars with your two year old, the ones about not letting them have a second ice cream. Their rants, however eloquent, are nothing more than sophisticated temper tantrums, ignore them.

fallacy of negotiated parenting

The fallacy of parenting by negotiation.

 

There is a popular style of parenting that goes something like this,

‘I always explain to Charlie exactly why he has to do something. We discuss it in a rational, grown up manner. I try to explain the reasoning behind our decisions. We think you shouldn’t impose things on children at least not without giving them a chance to have their say. We like to treat our children as ‘equals’.

 

There is civility and order about this that is undoubtedly appealing. No more arguments or tantrums, no battles of wills just civilized discussions or at least that’s the theory.

 

However this parenting style has some serious flaws. It assumes all members of the family have equal status and this is manifestly not true. It is our job to try as best we can to create a secure and loving environment for them and this means we sometimes have to make decisions they don’t like or agree with.

Most children aren’t able to make grown up decisions about what is good for them and what isn’t. What they think should happen is based on what they want to happen not what is in their best interests.

Further it also creates the illusion that the world is place where everything can be negotiated, this is patently not true. The teenager reared on a diet of negotiated settlements is in for a nasty shock when they enter the adult world. There is the lesser, but nevertheless relevant issue, which is that explaining and negotiating every decision, takes too much time.

 

My view is that the real appeal of this style of parenting is that it avoids conflict and suits parents who don’t want to upset their children, who don’t like conflict and/or can’t bear their children being angry with them. Yet the management of conflict is a very important skill to learn, as is the capacity to put up with things not going your way. These skills are best learned in the safety of the family.

 

It is not an infringement of their human rights to have to do what they are told without explanation or negotiation.

 

we thought he would grow out of it

“We thought he would grow out of it .”

 

Most consultations with the parents of troubled adolescents start with a lament.

 

“We thought he/she would grow out of it.”

 

It is a comment with which we are only too familiar. The hope that he or she will “grow out of it” has a wonderful ring of psychological authenticity, whilst at the same time allowing ourselves the luxury of doing nothing. The problem is, none of us can quite explain why or how teenagers will “grow out of it.” Or, to put it more precisely, we don’t really know why, if left to their own devices, they will stop one kind of aberrant behaviour in favour of a more acceptable one, we just believe that they will.

 

Most adolescent troubles have a long incubatory history. It is nearly always possible to locate the onset much earlier in their life. As a consequence, this catch-all phrase – we thought they would grow out of it – disguises any number of missed opportunities to intervene and make a difference. These include, “We knew what to do but we couldn’t do it”; “We didn’t know what to do and just buried our heads in the sand and hoped for the best; or, “It wasn’t so bad so we just ignored it.”

 

Of course it is true that maturational processes can sometimes help the resolve the problem but, in my experience, the disappearance of the troubling behaviour usually means it has almost certainly mutated through time into something possibly less obvious but no less troubling. The whole psychological framework for believing they will “grow out of it” is so flawed, that our adherence to doing nothing is more akin to an act faith. This old mantra is indelibly imprinted on the parental psyche but I suggest we cast it aside and instead ask a different more relevant question, what happens if they do not grow out of it?