The dangers of an adolescent, abusive relationship with gaming

We need a proactive and empathetic understanding of why some teenagers seem glued to their screens.

Confusion, embarrassment and an overwhelming sense of disappointment are all emotions people associate with their first time.

This isn’t the case however, when it comes to discussing the first time you fall in love with a video game, especially if that game happens to be Pokémon Red/Blue. For me, it was playing Crash Bandicoot Warped on my friend’s PS1. After my first taste of the enjoyable platformer I was totally and utterly enchanted with gaming of every sort. Many of my friends moved on as they grew up, but my fascination only increased. By the age of fifteen my PS3 was my entire world and I did little else with my time. Gaming was no longer a leisure activity – it was the focus of my existence.

This was, as you can imagine, a profoundly unhealthy relationship. It wasn’t just that I was wasting my time – I was actively avoiding the pressing emotional realities of growing up. I don’t believe that I was alone in experiencing this enforced hermithood. Innumerable young men across the planet use gaming to hide from the unpleasant process of growing up, to the bafflement of their parents and wider society. This is my attempt to convey what is really going on in the minds of the world’s young couch potatoes.

As well as having to deal with a hormonal tsunami and appearance of acne, teenagers are obligated to contend with an array of societal demands on their character. Along with added responsibilities, adolescents are imbued with the desire to claim some level of status and respect from wider society. Young men have always been obsessed with gaining recognition – in some cultures this might take the form of military service, or in gang culture, or in higher education. Video games can meet the same longing, but in the form of a solitary, unproductive leisure activity.

When one achieves a high level in a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (games like World of Warcraft) there is an automatic respect given by other players. Gaining status in these games requires hours and hours of hard work, but it’s codified and easy to understand. While personal progress in the real world is uncertain, virtual progress is measured in numbers. The player knows that the repetition of certain actions will be rewarded by a visually pleasing confirmation of advancement. The drive to go out and achieve something in the real world is thus circumvented. The unpleasant feelings that propel us into action are self-medicated through participation in far safer virtual realities. The game doesn’t necessarily have to be a social one – as long as the player is rewarded with a coherent simulation of status and authority it is vulnerable to be overused. It doesn’t matter if it’s a mindless shooter or a story driven role-playing game, the seductive opportunity to medicate one’s cognitive growing pains can be hard to resist.

What makes this process so damaging is the isolation it inflicts upon the individual. Thousands of hours that should be spent learning the rules of basic social interaction are thrown to the wind. Conversing with girls becomes an insurmountable challenge and the teenager is further burdened with feelings of inadequacy and frustration. Once the increasingly despondent individual has become accustomed to avoiding these feelings it becomes difficult to break out of the cycle.

When an adolescent has answered every life issue with obsessional gaming since the age of thirteen, he is woefully ill-equipped to step up to the mark. This disempowerment is something that can hamper development for a long time – despite the fact that I’ve managed to fashion something equating to a happy existence, I am still living with the legacy of my ill-spent youth. I didn’t climb trees or ride my bike through the countryside – I sat in my room and hid from the intimidating world of expectations and pretty girls.

If a mother spots that their son is dealing with their problems through consumption of drugs or alcohol, it is unlikely that they will look the other way. The danger with abusive gaming is that it is accepted by society. A mum is far more likely to tut and complain about the PS3 than call an intervention. That’s not to go over the top – I acknowledge that the vast majority of people can enjoy video games for what they are, an absorbingly and brilliant way to relax and have fun. I merely wish that I could travel back four years, give my fifteen-year-old self a hearty slap round the face, throw the PS3 out the window and get him a girlfriend.

 There’s an awful lot of fear-mongering about video games, but most of it is total cobblers. There needs to be a deeper, more empathic narrative regarding the relationship many young males have with gaming. Panic-stricken headlines help nobody, but a proactive understanding of why some teenagers seem glued to their screens may prevent a lot of demotivated young men from chronic underachievement.

To witness Will Hazell try and figure out how hashtags work, visit @WiltHazell

By the age of fifteen my PS3 was my entire world. Photograph: Getty Images
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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.