While there is increasingly more awareness of the problems resulting from cyberbullying, an often overlooked component of the whole cybersafety issue is internet and online video game addiction. More and more Australian families are being confronted with this very real and, according to all reports, growing problem. Robert (not his real name) sat in a chair, scowling at me across my consulting room. He had just turned 17 and had been told by his parents that he had no choice but to see me. He looked exhausted, pale and tired with dark circles under his eyes and a very bad skin. A week earlier, his parents had come to see me, anxious and desperate as they recounted how their son spent up to four and a half hours a night glued to his computer screen playing interactive computer games and chatting online.

Every time they pleaded with him to go for a walk, visit the extended family, do some homework or have a meal with them, he would become hysterical. A flood of tears, screaming fits of uncontrollable rage, almost invariably accompanied by threats to harm himself – all of which would continue unabated until his parents recanted, beating a hasty retreat, terrified that he might carry out his threats. They had been arguing amongst themselves as to how best address this and each attempt to deal with the issue had resulted in failure. Having taken a detailed history, it was clear to me that Robert was in serious trouble. At the age of 17, he had not tackled any of the key developmental tasks of adolescence. His parents reported that he had few friends outside of cyberspace; he played no sport and had no other leisure interests. He did no exercise, ate in front of his computer and snacked constantly while online and unsurprisingly he was extremely overweight. His attendance at school was sporadic and he often refused to get up in the morning as he would stay online until the early hours of the morning and while doing none of his assigned homework.

He confided in me that while playing these games he experienced a sense of well-being or euphoria and felt unable to stop the activity, and said the more he played the more time he craved. He acknowledged neglecting family and friends, losing track of time while online and sacrificing sleep to spend time online but he claimed he was now part of a virtual community who shared common goals and each day set off on digital quests in a fantasy world peppered with magic, sorcery, and dragons galore. He explained how with each quest, his player’s character evolves and changes as he interacts with other players and characters all of which afforded him a sense of meaning, purpose and belonging that he felt his parents could never comprehend. When away from the game, he confessed to feeling empty, depressed and irritable. He freely admitting to lying to family about the time he spent online. Some argue that Robert is a victim of an admittedly controversial condition, known as Internet addiction disorder (IAD). On the 1st of December 2005, in an article in the New York Times, Dr. Kimberly Young, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh called for the American Psychiatric Association to give official recognition to the disorder – an action that would pave the way for insurance companies to reimburse addicts for therapy. Dr Young compares the condition to pathological gambling.

For children and teenagers, there is no doubt that the Internet can be an excellent resource for information, communication and entertainment, but more and more Australian parents are concerned about excessive time online. For Robert and many others like him, internet activity is replacing their real-life experiences and relationships and unless they can bring some balance into their lives they could be compromising their future and both psychological and physical health with such compulsive Internet use. The potent mix of defining and acting out an ideal self in a rich, exciting and magical land creates a peculiar draw for Robert who has poor self esteem, has been bullied at school and is depressed. For him, the game was better than his real life. It was easier for him to succeed in cyberspace, where he could be beautiful, fit, and healthy. The problem was that in real life he saw himself as a loser trapped in the real world, but the game gave Robert an opportunity to feel heroic and free.

World of Warcraft, his current obsession, is one of the most popular MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) games in the world, with more than 10 million active subscriptions. So clearly Robert and his family are not alone. A recent study conducted by Dr Mubarak Ali of Flinders University studied students from 114 government and private schools across a broad socio-economic range and found that a staggering one third of respondents were “…in the process of developing a psychological addiction to the internet, spending on average 13 hours a week online.”  Overseas experts estimate that between 6% and 10% of users have a dependency that can be as destructive as alcoholism and drug addiction.

Our children are early settlers in a remarkable new world, often referred to as Cyberia, a frontier that is as dangerous as it is wonderful. They find it exciting because everything is available and almost anything is possible, but it is dangerous for the same reasons –   it is a frontier without laws, where things are not always as they seem, and people are not always who they say they are. What looks like a bank can turn out to be a robber, what looks like a friend can be a predator and what looks like a game can be a trap. Like many adults charged with the care of the next generation, Robert’s parents feel as though they are shut out, on the other side of the door – neither knowing nor understanding what happens in this world. There needs to be a change in attitude and behaviour in parents and children. Schools and government need to be driving this.

Clearly parents have a major role in encouraging parents to be much more proactive when it comes to young people and the internet. Instead of standing on the dock and waving goodbye as their children head off to Cyberia, it is imperative they begin a dialogue, ask their children to introduce them to the customs and cultures of Cyberia, meet its people and celebrate its contribution to art, literature and science. Discover its history, understand its present and join with the native cyberians to shape its future. While Cyberia is undoubtedly a source of education, entertainment and information, there is growing evidence that its omnipresent offer of escape from reality, affordability, accessibility and opportunity for anonymity can   lure otherwise healthy young people into an addiction. It is up to parents to monitor not just what their sons and daughters do online but also the length of time that they spend in front of a computer screen. Many of these games have parental controls, which parents elect not to use. Banning is not the answer, the better strategy is to give kids access, get informed, set some rules, monitor and supervise. To ignore this responsibility is tantamount to child abuse and can create significant psychological and social problems for years to come.  Don’t believe me? Ask Robert’s parents.

Dr Michael Carr-Gregg is the Chair of The Alannah and Madeline Foundation‘s National Centre Against Bullying Cybersafety Committee and author of Real Wired Child (2007). Editor Dr Ramesh Manocha. Parts of this article previously published in The Herald Sun.