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Two children, siblings on parents' bed at morning with tablets. Brother and sister play computer games. Siblings and gadgets. Children in glasses.

When kids use gaming to escape stress

When eebudee founder and father of 2, Mike Fairclough, separated from his partner; his young sons immersed themselves in technology. He didn’t realise it at the time, but his boys were using gaming and the online world to distract themselves from the stress and upheaval caused by the separation.

Mike spoke with us about when he realised their technology use was a problem, and how he helped restore balance in his children’s lives.

eebudee: You said you noticed your boys turned to technology during your separation, can you tell us more about that?

Mike Fairclough: I didn’t realise it at the time, but technology was being used by the kids to escape. Whereas an adult might turn to alcohol, or you know, drugs or something, my kids really did turn to gaming and screen time to escape what was a pretty terrible situation for them. There was conflict in their household, their mum and dad were separating and they were caught in the middle. I’ve only really recognised this in the last few months.

I guess the thing that solidified it for me was the Telethon Institute Research that I saw and I thought, my god, that’s what happened to my kids. My boys are 9 and 7, and I love them, their mother loves them, and their family loves them dearly, so they’ve got a support network. But not withstanding that, I now know that they immersed themselves in technology. At the time I was feeling emotionally at my lowest point, I felt that it [technology] kept them happy, and that was good for them and just gave me the space that I was requiring as well.

eebudee: What behavior changes did you notice in your kids at this time?

Mike Fairclough: Well, they became very withdrawn and I think it was escapism, essentially. But after a time if there was disruption to that world, they became cantankerous, they would be fighting with one another, fighting with other kids, lethargic, not wanting to be active, not wanting to learn or go to school. And this [technology] was really a huge crutch for them – I can understand that now, and I allowed that to happen.

I didn’t know really it was happening at the time. They were interested in technology and gaming like all kids, but their family circumstances were such that I think they were drawn to it and gravitated to it and didn’t want to let go of it, and I can understand why.

Now that I know that, and I’ve spoken to other parents in similar circumstances to mine, I can see this behaviour has a common thread, and it’s born out by the research the Telethon Institute did.

eebudee: It’s understandable parents could miss this kind of behaviour, as addiction to gaming is a fairly new thing.

Mike Fairclough: I think my 2 boys have come through a really, really tough time, and it’s not something you’d want your own children to experience of course. It saddens me as a dad to know that I’ve been party to their emotional turmoil. So now, not withstanding that, we’ve all got to get on with it, and I see, particularly in one of my lads, a real – addictions not the right word – but a real ongoing focus and desire to be gaming and having screen time, and now, talking about being connected on social media.

It’s natural enough for these kids, because they’re getting iPads at 4 at kindergarten anyway, but I think certainly in my case, and other parents in circumstances such as mine, that it [the emotional upheaval] precipitated a greater desire to game, be online, do more and more screen time than otherwise may have been the case.

eebudee: Did things improve after the period of upheaval following your separation? Have you implemented anything to support your kids?

Mike Fairclough: Yeah, I think that as tensions eased around their mum and dad breaking up and the heat had gone out of the exchange, they still wanted to game and be on social media, but I was able to put things in place, as my wellbeing improved, to help them balance their day and their activities including screen time and gaming, better.

I use certain tools to manage how much time they have. For example, I have a raffle ticket book and if they want 15-minutes to play Minecraft or a game they’ve got to do 15-minutes of homework or reading or kicking the footy or hockey or whatever that might be, to earn that. I don’t do a one for one by the way! It’s not 12 hours of screen time and then 12 hours of other stuff. I use that and we promote balance. I also take the devices away at a certain time each day. It’s been a long, tough journey at times with this, and I know other parents are having the same sorts of challenges.

eebudee: If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice while the separation was happening, what would it be?

Mike Fairclough: I would say to myself that I am a good dad, and I’m trying to be the best dad I can be with every aspect of the boys’ life. What I now understand is that I need to be a really good dad for their online world as well as their offline world. Especially because it [the online world] moves so fast, and as an older dad, it didn’t come naturally to me. It moved really quickly and got past me before I even saw it.

I know there are parents out there like me, and perhaps younger mums and dads can get it quickly, but it needs to happen young. They’re getting iPads at 4, and they’re getting exposed to mum and dad’s iPhones and stuff very early in the piece, so we need to be helping them very young. As much as we might think it’s too young or it’s rubbish, it’s their world.

eebudee: Do you have any advice for other parents out there?

Mike Fairclough: It can look overwhelming and it’s easy to say like my parents say, ‘oh technology, I don’t need that I don’t want that, it’s too hard for me’. The reality is that if you spend a little time each week or each day on it, it’s not that overwhelming. I think it’s about getting your attitude right and saying, ‘I can do this’. And the consequences if I don’t do this may be consequences that I couldn’t live with.

I come from a farm, I’m 52, and I had a situation where I thought social media was the biggest load of rubbish I’d ever heard and seen. And I worked out that that’s fine for me to think, but that attitude isn’t going to help my 2 sons. So I had to really refocus and change my attitude to say, ‘you know what, social media is not my life, but it’s my sons, and while I might think it’s a load of rubbish that’s fine’.

I’ve got to get in there and be interested in Minecraft and be interested in what they’re doing online and be part of it. And I’ve got to be on Facebook and keep learning and stay with them through this journey because if I don’t, there will be consequences I wouldn’t be happy with and I want to be the best parent I can be.

eebudee: Anything else you’d like to share about your journey?

Mike Fairclough: Talk to other parents and know that you’re not in it alone. We’re all going through the same journey. We’re all wanting to be good parents. We’re all wanting to be the best and you can learn so much and get great ideas from talking to one another. I see eebudee, for what it’s worth, and Safe Social Media, with our community and our friends, as an opportunity for us to help one another, maybe now or down the track when members of our Facebook community feel it’s the right time. We can all help one another to help our kids and help the community. Don’t be an island in this. Don’t think you’re doing it on your own, because you’re not.

Head here for more on eebudee’s journey so far. If you have personal experiences with the issues Mike has discussed above, please feel free to share your insights with us in the comments section below, or on our Safe Social Media page on Facebook. We’d love to hear from you, and believe sharing the common challenges we face is so important for parents in this digital age.