Published on February 17th, 2022 | by Chanel Brenner4
Why My Son Stopped Playing Fortnite
On the morning of April 1, 2019, I walked into our kitchen and found my ten-year-old son Desmond’s Xbox on the table with a sticky note attached to it that read: No More Video Games!! He’d placed it next to a basket with his games, controllers, and headset. My husband, Lee, sat at the table, drinking coffee, head down, looking at his iPhone.
“Did you do this?” I asked.
He shook his head without looking up. “Nope, it was here when I got here.”
“When did he do this?” I asked.
“Beats me,” Lee said.
I was already feeling emotional over the recent loss of our sixteen-year-old cat, Chakra, and I tried not to get mad about Lee’s nonchalant attitude. We had been having challenges managing Desmond’s video game/media time since we bought him the Xbox in 2016 (it was the only thing he wanted from Santa except for a dog). I can still see him on the couch playing his first game, smiling, next to a stuffed Pomeranian dog that came with a note on Christmas morning: Dear Desmond, Until your parents let me give you a real dog. Love, Santa.
Having a gaming system in my house was one of my parenting “I will never”s. During our first year of marriage, Lee rented one from Blockbuster when he was sick and played the entire day without eating or drinking. He gave himself motion sickness that lasted weeks, but said it was worth it: “I won the Vietnam War with only a boat and a helicopter!”
“We are never having a gaming system in our house, even when we have kids!” I declared. So when I decided to buy Desmond an Xbox, Lee was shocked and opposed. I told him I was worried about being too extreme; his preschool friend’s mom didn’t allow any sugar except on special occasions like a trip to Disneyland when he could have all the sweets he wanted. I didn’t want to encourage a “binge” mentality. Instead, I wanted Desmond to learn to manage his media and not turn it into something taboo, which might make him rebel against limitations. “What about when he goes to college? I don’t want him to be one of those kids who gets addicted to video games and drops out.”
The truth? I didn’t want to see him disappointed on Christmas. Desmond had suffered more than his fair share of grief; his older brother, Riley, died from a brain AVM hemorrhage when Desmond was two years old, and since then, I cannot bear to see my living child sad. And I sure as hell wasn’t getting him a dog. Two notes from Santa, rejecting his requests, would have been too cruel.
There is nothing that could have prepared me for what was unleashed in our house that day when Desmond downloaded Fortnite. It immediately became his game of choice. I see it now as a shadowy entity that entered our house and attached to him like a Symbiote, growing and darkening over time. Shortly after Desmond began playing, we noticed mood changes, explosive anger, incessant ball bouncing after he played, lying about game time, begging to play before school, and lessening engagement with us.
I read books, searched for support, and attended an event about kids and screen time. We tried positive reinforcement and setting timers to no avail, and we argued about the problem ad nauseam.
“Just trust me,” he would say. “I’ll stop on my own, if if you stop making me.”
“Trust you?” I’d yell. “How can I trust you when you never stop?” He always had an excuse: “One more sec.” “Mom, just let me die” (my least favorite). “ “My friend just got on.” “My game glitched.” “The game’s almost over.” “I won’t play tomorrow.” “Come on. Really, Mom, really? You suck.”
To outsiders, our son appeared unchanged. He was still enthusiastic and doing well at school. He was playing two sports and having playdates with friends that included non-screen time. But at home it was a different story.
I threatened him with a three-week “no media” reset the book suggested, but never felt like that was the solution (or that I’d be able to follow through). From a website, I learned that Desmond was an “at risk gamer,” as opposed to a “casual gamer” or an “addicted gamer.” I felt relieved, but in my heart, I knew differently.
As a family, we negotiated and drafted a Fortnite media plan. Desmond would take two days off a week from video games and Fortnite YouTube videos and limit his overall usage. I worked at being firmer and more consistent, finally accepting that managing media was going to be my job until he went to college. He worked on controlling his anger outbursts and getting off the Xbox when I told him it was time.
Things got better, but just when I thought we were making progress, problems surfaced again. We hit bottom one day when he lost a game and had to stop playing because he had football practice. I was standing behind the couch as he screamed “Fuck” and threw his controller as hard as could at the couch where it landed only inches from me.
“That’s not okay,” I yelled. “You could have really hurt me!”
A few days after the incident, Desmond lay his head down on the table while considering a week-long break from playing Fortnite, just to see if he could stop. He thought about the weekend and said, “Oh my God, what am I going to do on Saturday morning? I am so addicted.” He decided he wanted to try another game, Apex Legends, that he thought wouldn’t be as addictive. I joked with Lee that it was like using methadone to treat a heroin addiction.
But now it seemed that Desmond had made the decision to quit on his own, at least according to the sticky note he’d left for himself. He was vague when I asked him what prompted the Xbox unplug. He said that he didn’t want to wake up scared and worried about what he was going to do if he couldn’t play Fortnite. He also said it was too much work to plan when he would play and not play. He was just sick of it. It seemed like there was more to it, and I wondered if he had crossed from at risk to addict.
A couple of weeks later, Desmond said in a quiet voice from the backseat of the car, “I want to tell you the real reason I stopped playing Fortnite. I wasn’t ready at first and I knew if I told you when I was still playing, you’d make me stop.”
“Okay,” I said.
“I was starting to have suicidal thoughts…images in my brain. I knew they were from Fortnite. They’re gone now.”
“How scary,” I said. “I am so proud of you.” I felt tectonic plates colliding—fear quickly sliding below a mountain of relief. We had escaped a magnitude 8, and I tried not to think, What’s next?
At a Kids’ Brains and Screens event, they shared research about how brain damage from video games mirrors the damage from alcohol and drugs, because it goes through kids’ eyes straight into their brains. It scared the shit out of me, but then I remembered the devastating damage Riley’s AVM hemorrhage did to his brain—the right hemisphere crushed by the massive blood clot’s pressure. The damage from video games paled in comparison.
Within days of unplugging the Xbox, Desmond had convinced his friend Sam to stop playing Fortnite too; they built a cardboard house instead. I took Desmond and Sam to Dave & Busters, bowling, the movies, and Benihana that first week. I did everything I could to support his decision, and I think he survived his spring break withdrawal better than I did.
But driving home from school the following week, Desmond declared: “I feel like I don’t have any friends. Life is so hard. Life is boring and then you die.”
“You’ve gone through a lot of change,” I said, thinking about how our cat had died a couple of weeks before the Fortnite unplug. “Did Chakra dying have something to do with you quitting?” Even with all my grief experience, somehow I didn’t see the connection earlier.
“Totally,” he said. “And Riley dying. When I saw someone rage about a loss in Fortnite, I’d think, people have real-life things to be upset about. It looks so stupid.”
I know parents who allow their kids to cross the street by themselves at six. Desmond is ten, and I still watch him cross the street to go to Sam’s house, but Sam’s mom lets him ride his scooter to ours.
Desmond said, “It’s funny, Sam’s mom lets him cross streets by himself, but won’t let him play Fortnite with strangers.”
“We all have our things,” I said, thinking how subjective fear is.
Learning to navigate online socially is a skill Desmond will need, and the benefits outweigh the risks. Crossing streets is a skill he will need too, but crossing the street by our house, without a stop sign and with cars speeding by, is not worth the risk for me. If I hadn’t lost my first-born son, I might feel differently.
I have lost the luxury of thinking, It won’t happen to my child. I have lost the ability to feel okay about being negligent, like letting Desmond sit in the car’s front seat or ride a scooter without a helmet. I have learned that I can’t control everything and can’t always keep my child safe. I have learned that children die. They aren’t as “resilient” as we’ve been told. Every time I make a decision about Desmond, it is filtered through the loss of his brother.
I still wonder if I should have taken Fortnite away from him earlier, but I also see how empowering it was for Desmond to stop on his own and face the challenges knowing he had made the choice himself, instead of having the change forced on him. When he complained, “I am bored AF,” struggling with the withdrawal side-effects—what to do with his time and how to connect with his friends without video games — he owned it. He didn’t feel the need to rebel. He told me he would have hated me if I had been the one to pull the plug.
Desmond will be exposed to many Fortnites in his future: vaping, alcohol, drugs, pornography. Parenting is a struggle to find a balance between protecting our children and allowing them to be independent and self-driven—letting them make and learn from their own mistakes.