Driving along with my 11 year old, I listened with half an ear as she chatted animatedly about her new virtual pet App, Egg Babies.
'Look', she exclaimed, 'I can rock it to sleep! And choose clothes for it! Isn't it cute, mummy?'
Mmm, I agreed, my mind preoccupied with the day ahead.
'And look Mummy, if it can't sleep, I can give it a pill! '
What?? I nearly crashed the car in shock. Surely that couldn't be right? Surely a child's game would encourage pet 'owners' to sing lullabies or read stories, not pop sleeping pills if they struggled to achieve virtual sleepiness for their 'babies'?
Now, my daughter had my full attention as I asked her what other pills she could give Speckles, her admittedly rather cute, Egg Baby. Apparently, there is a whole virtual pharmaceutical cabinet available to my innocent pre-teen to choose from. 'Chill Pills' for when the 'baby' is 'overstimulated'. Happy 'lotion' for when he is sad. And, of course, the sleeping tablets that Speckles has, apparently, been practically weaned on.
As a Psychologist with a private practice specialising in anxiety conditions, I am alarmed by this game. We are arguably, already a nation of pill-poppers, with many of us turning to the medicine cabinet to solve most ills; are children's computer games like my daughter's virtual pet App merely reflecting this - or will they contribute even more to this culture? The medical profession certainly dishes out pills like smarties, with sleep disturbances, anxiety and depression being routinely 'treated' with pharmaceutical interventions (and let's not even mention the routine administration of Ritalin for kids with ADHD). Of course, sometimes these drugs are justified; a severely depressed client, for example, may well need medical intervention in order to function (and sometimes to survive). However, as a Cognitive Behavioural Practitioner, I fear that too many patients are being administered relatively cheap drugs in place of more expensive and intensive therapy. Drugs are not just cheaper - they are immediately available, in contrast with the 12-18 months waiting lists that are typical for psychological intervention on the NHS.
I certainly see many in my clinic who have been offered drugs as an answer to their problems by their family doctor, but who have resisted in order to seek the private therapy I offer. And, I cure them - without drugs. Phobias, social anxiety disorder, obsessional compulsive disorder and even depression can all be treated without drugs and, in my view, often should be. Drugs treat the symptoms but not the cause, whereas therapy helps the client develop the coping skills to manage their difficulties. Drugs can encourage dependency and indeed, it is common for patients to be on medication for a very long time, often with only marginal benefit. Admittedly, used alongside therapy, medication can be very effective for some, but often the lack of financial resources in the UK for psychological intervention means that the drug-only route is often all that is on offer to most patients. And, to be fair, many patients are only satisfied when they walk out of the doctor's surgery clutching a prescription - the magic bullet that they hope will cure them with minimal effort on their part. Therapy takes effort, courage and guts - and time. Popping pills seems a lot easier.
Games like Egg Baby are surely reinforcing the erroneous view that for every ill there is a pill. A view that is, in my opinion, harmful and damaging in the long-term. I believe they are helping to teach impressionable youngsters as they are growing into adulthood that every psychological problem, concern or discomfort should be sorted by popping a pill. We need to be teaching our kids resilience, and coping skills, not that as soon as they are a bit over excited, or stressed, or anxious, or can't sleep, they should pop a pill.
Children's games that encourage kids to use drugs for every minor or temporary complaint are not harmless fun. They are insidious in that their influence is creeping, hidden and wrapped in cute and cuddly packaging. They pave the way for a tacit acceptance of prescribed and even non-prescribed uppers, downers, relaxants and stimulants. And the really scary thing is that most parents have no idea of the hidden menace that 'harmless' computer games like these might be harbouring.