With increasing frequency I have observed behaviors in children that seem consistent with addictive dependence on video games. Addiction is a chronic disease that involves the brain’s reward systems. The individual pathologically pursues reward or relief from stressors by engaging in the behavior—which may result in negative psychological and social effects. Video game use can indeed become addictive.
Data from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) indicates that American children spend about seven hours per day engaged with some form of a screen such as TV, computers, and cell phones. For many, a good deal of this time is spent on gaming devices. It is possible to engage in too much gaming and not be addicted, but for some it is a problem. Children at highest risk are male, impulsive, have poor social skills and less than average empathy.
Diagnoses that may be related to addictive gaming include ADHD, depression/anxiety, and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Douglas Gentile of Ohio State assessed the rate of addiction at about nine percent of game users. He found that children who are anxious and depressed to start with become even more so when their gaming becomes excessive; on the positive side, elimination of game use results in a reversal of effects. While certain negative factors may predispose one to game addiction, it also makes these conditions worse, according to Dr. Gentile.
In addition to recognizing the amount of time spent gaming, parents must also observe the effects of it. Is the child becoming secretive or devious? I have heard reports of children waking up at night to sneak onto the computer, and that parents must lock or block access to keep kids from getting to their games. Is the child happiest when undisturbed and alone with the game? Does he become irritable or even violent when asked to log off? Then look at what is being neglected. School work, exercise, real-life social encounters, hygiene, sleep, and nutrition are often compromised.
Kids who feel like outcasts or have stress may be more likely to become addicted. Role playing games may be particularly addictive for these kids along with virtual world games where the children design a world for themselves. This gives them a sense of control which they don’t have in the real world. In turn, over engagement in games increases their disengagement, anxiety and depression.
A plan for unplugging
Parents who believe their child is addicted can and must help. It is best to gradually reduce access and set limits. Make a plan for reducing time on the game and enforce this with timers. Set firm limits and contingencies. Schedule alternative activities for the child and provide incentives for him to participate; social skill group or psycho therapy may also be helpful.
Family board game nights, outdoor activities and screen-free nights can help. In fact, the AAP recommends devising a family home use plan for media consumption. Televisions, computers and game devices should be removed from the bedrooms of children and teens. Parents can reduce the risk of their children becoming addicted to games by avoiding the practice of offering their phones or tablets as a quick fix in the car, at restaurants and as a baby sitter (yes, you can).
Have a frank discussion with the over user about the dangers of game addiction along with the advantages of disengaging from the virtual world and plugging into the real world, even with its stress, boredom and difficulties. Real people live in the real world.
Pat Blackwell, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist in practice at Pelts Kirkhart & Associates. 504.581.3933.