Fortnite and other addictive video games can have a similar effect on children’s brains as drug abuse or alcoholism, MRI scans reveal.
They show the “reward” system in the brains of young heavy users of social media and video games display the same changes in function and structure as those of alcoholics or drug addicts.
A series of studies by California State University found the impulsive part of the brain, known as the amygdala-striatal system, was not only more sensitive but also smaller in excessive users so that it processed the stimuli of social media or games faster.
The findings come as Britain’s children are gripped by the Fortnite video game, with one nine-year-old reportedly admitted to rehab after becoming so addicted she wet herself rather than leave the screen and primary schools urging parents to ban their children from playing them.
On Monday, the Daily Telegraph launched the Duty of Care campaign calling on ministers to make social media and online gaming companies subject to a statutory duty to protect children from harms such as addiction, bullying and grooming when using their services.
Ministers are considering new measures to rein in the worst excesses of online tech companies amid fears a generation of young people is being harmed by unregulated use of social media and online gaming platforms.
One leading internet addiction expert who has treated children playing the game said Fortnite’s addictive quality was such that it made Beatlemania look like a passing whim and had captivated the young in the same way as the nation was swept up by the “Princess Diana effect”.
According to the studies led by Professor Ofir Turel, of California State University, the impact on the young’s brains is marked: “Say someone sees a video game or cellphone, this reward system in the brain lights up. It’s a very strong activation compared to other people.
“It is associated with structural change in that this brain area is smaller in people who are excessive users. The smaller system can process associations much faster. But like a car, you need to put more gas into it to generate more power.”
There was, however, an up-side in that the studies showed the part of brain responsible for “self-control” over their impulses was not affected in the same way for excessive social media users as other addictions such as drink or drugs.
“The development of the reward or impulse system is much faster compared to the development of the self-control system. It means that if you take someone who is 13 years old,they will have a mature reward system but self-control system is not as well developed.
“So they are much more pre-disposed for impulsive and risky behaviours. With children there is room for regulation. They need our protection. Their brains are not as efficient as ours.”
The addictive quality of Fortnite, which has been downloaded 40m times since last July, has been picked up by Dr Richard Graham, who set up the UK’s first internet addiction clinic at the private Nightingale hospital in London.
He said all the young patients he was treating did play the game alongside other internet activities, with one playing it through the night.
He said: “In six months, it has made Beatlemania look like a passing whim. You are dealing with something akin to the massive Diana effect that swept up everyone.
The multi-player format, where, in the Battle Royale version up to 100 players fight each other until one is left standing, engendered a “crowd mentality.”