African American mother and daughter playing video games.

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Why you’re losing your child to video gaming

If old habits die hard, dangerous ones are even more stubborn.

When controversial children’s game Charlie Charlie resurfaced two months ago after an eight-year lull, it caused a stir online as parents in Kenya feared that satanism was creeping into the country, targeting their children.

In the challenge, whose origin is said to be Mexico in the 2000s, the player uses a paper and two pencils to invoke the demon of Charlie.

According to urban legend, Charlie is a child who was killed in a car crash at an unidentified period. When invoked, Charlie’s spirit foretells the often dark future of the player.

The game has triggered mass hysteria and trauma among children globally. Some have committed suicide. 

As its global popularity cascaded into horror, authorities in Libya banned the game. The north African country blamed it for six suicides among minors.

The challenge may have been the subject of wide-ranging speculation and controversy reported widely in Latin America, the US and across Europe five years ago. Many Kenyans, however, only heard about the game recently.

As parents panicked, Kenya Film Classification Board CEO Ezekiel Mutua weighed in.

‘‘Keep the game ‘Charlie Charlie’ away from [your] children. It’s demonic,” Dr Mutua tweeted, arguing that summoning demons is not a game, but witchcraft. “You are introducing your children to witchcraft. These games are bad for kids.”

In schools, alarm bells went off as teachers warned parents about the new fiend in town. In one of the messages to parents seen by Nation, a teacher in panic called for divine intervention to exorcise the demon which, he lamented, was spreading fast among schoolchildren.

He wrote: “There are demonic forces moving things around when children [play] after chanting some demonic words. To a child, it may appear harmless.”

“This may sound unreal but I have confirmed it beyond a shadow of doubt,” the teacher went on to say.

Yet Charlie Charlie is far from what should scare you as a parent, guardian or teacher. There is a more menacing peril: video games. From behaviour change to brain development and even safety, video gaming at an early age will disrupt your child’s life in unimaginable ways, experts warn.

Among young Kenyan video gamers, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto and Mortal Kombat are known better than the counties of Kenya. Like elsewhere in the world, Kenyan teenagers are spending millions of hours every year online playing video games.

Worth an estimated Sh13 billion, gaming in Kenya is on a steep growth curve, thanks to a growing number of young players.

A 2018 report by Pew Research Center indicated that a staggering 97 percent of children aged between 12 to 17 play one or the other type of video game.

Adrien Petrousse, 18, spends most of his day gaming, playing for an average of six to eight hours per day. Petrousse learnt to hold a control pad when he was only three. Today, he knows the world of video gaming lock, stock and barrel.

He narrates: “My elder sister had a PS1 console. I would watch her play. When she wasn’t around, I would play on it.”

A former student at St Mary’s Nairobi, Petrousse is hoping to join college through a soccer scholarship later this year. He also hopes to carve a career in gaming.

“I’ve been harassed online, but not bullied. Some opponents verbally abuse you when you beat them in a game. Some even go ahead to spam you with insults,” he says.

While it would affect him psychologically when he was young, now a young adult, he has learnt to deal with online bullies, often by simply dismissing insults.

He says: “I once reported someone who was insulting me online to the game company. He got banned from their gaming platform.”

At his home in Garden Estate, Ken, 11, sits on the floor in his room, completely transfixed by the game on the 55-inch screen, lost to the world. The boy’s static frame resembles a statue’s -- his hands, however, are fanatically moving the control pad.

Mercy and James Wanjohi’s is a contemporary middle-class Kenyan family. The couple, whose other children are seven and three, are senior administrators in different companies in the city.

A well-to-do family by many standards, their children attend a private day school in the city. They also comfortably provide pleasures to their children, among them video games. Each has a tablet, including Mel, the three-year-old.

At the Wanjohi household, Greg is a common name. The character is so well known that he features in casual chats and routine conversations at the dinner table. His family is like Ken’s: well-off and modern.

Yet Greg is not a schoolmate of Ken’s and Liam’s. He’s not a relative, or a neighbour. Greg is Ken’s favourite gaming partner and online friend.

The two met online and an instant connection was made. They engage purely online and their relationship is purely virtual.

Whereas Ken and his siblings have repeatedly suggested visiting Greg, well aware of the risk, their mother has rebuffed such overtures.

“I wouldn’t allow them to meet him. If he went to their school, maybe I would. But there’s no connection at all,” Mercy says.

While at home, she limits her children’s access to the internet and games by locking up their electronic gadgets. The results have been a mixed bag.

Lock up the gadgets she may, but Ken and Liam are too sly for her. With barely no restrictions on the TV, and WiFi available day and night, they always outsmart their mother by playing their games on TV.

“When I’m out of town for work, they retrieve the gadgets and spend as much time with them as they please.”

Mercy’s predicament isn’t isolated. Most modern parents and guardians find themselves in this same situation.

“It’s become harder to control them. We’re always in a cat and mouse games,” she laments.

After months of goading from her son, Mercy’s initial reluctance capitulated, and she subscribed to two video games -- Roblox and Minecraft.

A recurring monthly subscription of Minecraft (Java edition) according to www.minecraft.net costs $7.99 (Sh878), by the current exchange rate, while a one-time purchase for one month goes for $9.99 (Sh1,098).

There are other one-off plans for 90 days selling at $26.99 (Sh2,960) and 180 days at $47.99 (Sh5,280).

Petrousse, who uses his father’s credit card to pay for the purchases, says most games cost an average of $60 (Sh6,500).

Like Mercy, many parents today are happy to surrender their credit card to pay for their children’s video game subscriptions. Curiously though, few know about the nature of games the card ends up paying for. 

“I know Roblox has elements of violence,” Mercy says. “I’ve warned my children about it, but they insist it’s fun.” She’s also clueless about Minecraft (fantasy violence), how it’s played or even what the potential dangers are.

Meanwhile, Ken wants more. During the nine-month period children stayed home following the Covid-19 pandemic, he demanded a console. But this time, Mercy did not relent.

“He’s already disobedient with a tablet. He would be out of control with a console,” she fears.

Defeated, Ken came up with a plan: a joint investment. “He said he’s willing to contribute 40 per cent of the cost while I meet the rest.”

A new video game console such as PlayStation 5 (PS5) leaves you a tidy Sh70,000 out of pocket. If fancier, a Sony version, for instance, will dent your bank balance by Sh120,000.

Thinking that the amount would be a tall order for her son, Mercy accepted the challenge. Only Ken had other ideas. Then began the race to save. These days, every spare coin ends up in his piggy bank.

“He’s so determined to acquire a console that cash gifts from his uncles and family friends go to his savings. Even his weekly allowance from his father is put away for the PlayStation,” she says.

Whenever Victor Bosire gets home after work, his children, aged three and one run to him. Yet play with their father isn’t what they are usually after. What they want is his smartphone.

“They go completely silent when scrolling the phone. You wouldn’t tell there are toddlers in our household,” says Bosire, a mechanic on Kirinyaga Road.

Says he: ‘‘They know to locate their favourite games.”

To surrender the phone, a fight has to go down.

Today, children are learning to operate a tablet long before they can string together a sentence and before they’ve learnt how to walk. While most couples successfully gag their children’s use of tech until they are 14, thereafter, they surrender control. This, experts argue, is the breaking point.

Researchers warn that excessive exposure to gaming before 21 can reconfigure a child’s brain. Some of these changes to the brain are irreversible.

So what are the perils of gaming? What should parents be on the lookout for?

Psychologist Maryanne Waruguru warns that most video games portray improper conduct and are certain to corrupt children.

‘‘If a game doesn’t portray violence including murders, then there must be elements of vulgarity. If not so, there’s substance abuse, inappropriate sexual behaviour and disobedience to the law, all which are criminal,’’ she says.

The cognitive behavioural therapist says video games have both positive and negative effects, all that are still under investigation by scientists and psychologists. How a child is affected, she says, depends on the nature of the game and the level of exposure.

Some of the benefits of gaming include development of visual and motor skills for children.

“Children gamers are able to multitask better than those who have no such exposure. Gaming hones their perception, mental rotation and cognitive abilities.”

It also enables them to react faster to stimuli, to make quicker decisions, to concentrate longer while their thinking capacity is also sharper, notes Waruguru.

But it’s the type of video game your child plays and the amount of time they spend playing that should concern you.

How much gaming is too much?

If your child is happy in their own company, often misses meals or sleeps late, you have to be very worried, Waruguru warns.

“If playing for between 10 and 20 minutes can stimulate brain activity, imagine the amount of activation your child gets for playing for hours every week.”

Findings of a 1998 study that was published in Nature, a scientific journal, indicate that gaming stimulates the release of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter.

Yet you need to be more worried. Playing video games causes the secretion of dopamine in similar amounts to that released when stimulants such as amphetamine and methylphenidate, commonly known as meth, are injected intravenously.

Therein lies the problem. Knocking off addiction to meth is a grueling, frustrating and often painful process.

Have you noticed behaviour change when you stop your children from playing? They become sulky and even aggressive? Well, those could be withdrawal symptoms, according to Dr David Greenfield, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut’s School of Medicine.

The founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction at the university is credited with popularising the concept of “virtual addiction”.

While a video game stimulates the brain of a child and spurs its development, this stimulation is finite, according to neuroscientists. After some time, the high level of concentration and sharp thinking capacity soon max out.

‘‘Your child may be able to multi-task and to learn with ease, but their attention will be short-lived. This makes it harder for them to concentrate in longer and less stimulating activities such as lectures.’’

Perhaps even more worrisome, the developments could inhibit other critical brain functions such as emotional regulation and executive control, he warns.

In psychology, executive control is the ability to carry out goal-oriented activities using complex mental processes and cognitive abilities.

Have you noticed a numbness to horror in your child? Naturally, blood, death and other horrors elicit dread in humans, particularly in children. If your child is unmoved by them, it could be because of the amount of violence they are exposed to through games.

‘‘When they watch violence, children get used to it and even start to exhibit aggressive behaviour. They might even try in real life the moves they see in video games, hurting themselves and others,’’ says Waruguru, who has worked with patients of mental illness and rehabilitation for children in conflict with the law.

Gaming, she adds, makes children reclusive as they try to create more playing time at the expense of social company.

“I noticed Ken was becoming selfish, he’d spend several hours alone in his room. He was hostile to his siblings and would even lock out his younger brother from their shared room to avoid ‘disturbance’,” Mercy confesses, adding that her son would sometimes even skip meals, just to play.

Waruguru attributes this “desire” for isolation to availability of chat sections within the game where players engage each other. Children develop attachment to their gaming partners as they drift from real interactions.

“Sometimes there’s a strong chemistry between you and your gaming partners. The liking for each other could be very deep and your goals and thinking almost aligned [that] you feel disconnected from the real world,” Petrousse says.

Unfortunately, Waruguru says, this has led to online predators who pose as children. She cautions: “These may bully your child online. If your child agrees to meet them in person, they may be harmed.”

There’s also the risk of addiction. In 2018, the World Health Organisation (WHO) identified addiction to gaming as a mental disorder (gaming disorder).

Although scientists are yet to reach consensus on the inclusion of “internet gaming disorder” as a psychiatric disorder, they agree that gaming possesses addictive qualities.

The human brain “is wired to crave instant gratification, fast pace, and unpredictability”, all which are satisfied in video games, according to experts.

Waruguru notes: “Children who are addicted to video games often struggle to forego immediate gratification. They tend to be impulsive in their choices. When you stop them from playing, they become aggressive.”

Such children often neglect personal hygiene and schoolwork, and their academic performance takes a nosedive. They’re also more likely to be obese due to remaining physically inactive for hours.

“Parents should be on the lookout for these behavioural changes.”

Parents and guardians, she advises, must ensure their children play only games that are beneficial and in a responsible way.

“Don’t allow your child to play a game that you haven’t scrutinised. Check whether the game is safe and appropriate by evaluating the content. You can do this through the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB).”

ESRB is a web-based platform where parents and guardians can search for the key themes in a game. You only need to type the name of the video game on the homepage, and all the elements in the game will be listed.

Blood and gore, nudity, violence and adult humour are some of the ratings.

A search on ESRB of Grand Theft Auto series, popular with teenagers worldwide, returns blood and gore, intense violence, mature humour, nudity, strong sexual content and use of drugs and alcohol as the key themes.

But there’s a shocker. As it turns out, not all content rated “appropriate” for your child is suitable for them.

Several independent analyses show that more than 50 per cent of all ESRB-rated games are violent.

One survey published in the Harvard Business Review shows that nearly all (90 percent) video games that are marked as appropriate for children aged 10 and older are violent, especially fantasy and action games that teenagers like.

“As a responsible parent, it’s imperative to play the video game with your child to get the experience and to understand what the content is about.”

Parents can also stipulate what video games their children should play. “You could forbid all violent and adult content, for instance. On time, set rules on when to play. For a good balance, prohibit playing before homework, house chores and other activities. Ensure that these rules are strictly observed.”

Talking to children regularly about their online activity, Waruguru says, is one of the ways to protect them from potential harms video gaming. “Find out who their playing partners are. Don’t just allow them to play anyone. This way, you’ll be able to ward off online predators.”

Yet modelling is the surest way to inspire good video gaming practices in your household, according to Waruguru.

In the social learning theory, cited by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), children learn by observing and mimicking. This reinforces the argument that video games could act as a catalyst for actual violent behaviour.

“What games do you play as a parent? What’s your online activity like? Children learn best by observing adults. Play only games that you would allow your children to play. If a game can corrupt you as an adult, imagine how much harm it can cause your child?”

The country has been jolted by gruesome crimes committed by teenagers in the recent past. From attempted murder to murder, arson and other assorted crimes, teenagers in Kenya have gone rogue, capable of any thinkable malevolence.

Lawrence Waruinge, 22, a tech student at Mount Kenya University, easily comes to mind. Waruinge is the main suspect in the bloodcurdling murder of four members of his family and a farm worker in December.

Detectives found out that prior to the murders, Waruinge had been watching Killing Eve, a dark, comedy-drama spy thriller.

In the thriller, Eva Polastri (portrayed by Sandra Oh), a British intelligence officer, investigates the dark world of female assassins, attempting to understand their psychologies and method of killing.

Waruinge confessed to have been inspired by the movie to commit the crimes in December last year.

During a morning radio show recently, President Uhuru Kenyatta asked parents to monitor the media content their children were consuming. The President argued that immoral media content was partly to blame for debauchery in the country, including drug abuse and crime.

“The government alone can’t enforce good conduct. Let’s work together to eliminate these ills,” President Kenyatta appealed.

But do media content, including video games, really inspire violence in real life? To what extent do video games motivate substance use and inappropriate sexual conduct?

The jury is out on whether there’s any tangible influence of violent content on crime among children.

Some quarters, including AAP and AACAP argue that violent video games inspire aggression in real life, by serving as “virtual rehearsals”.

Yet others dismiss exposure to violent content as an independent risk factor.

As part of this series on gaming, read about Mistrust, empty promises plague Sh13 billion gaming industry

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