November 6, 2019

Mythbusters: Questioning Conventional Wisdom in Parenting Part 2: Can your child become addicted to video games?

By Devon MacEachron

I was planning on writing a blog on this topic when the New York Times saved me some work with last Sunday’s magazine cover article: Can you Really be Addicted to Video Games? I’ll summarize some key points and add my take.

Practically every parent I work with struggles with this issue. When I ask: “Are there activities you’d like to see your child spend less time on?” the response is almost always (especially for parents of boys) “Yes! A lot less time playing video games.”

I worried about this as a parent too. It seemed to suck up my son’s time. Seeing him immobilized alone in a dark room on a beautiful Saturday broke my heart. We tried rules, contracts, timing systems, even hiding his controls – and had limited success. I fault myself for not being stronger. Today (at age 28), this very same son says that when he has children, he will not allow any form of screen use until they’re over 16. He’s a tech guy and is well aware of the dangers. I hope he’s a stronger parent than I was.

So, let’s consider whether our children can become addicted to video gaming, and – short of a full-on “addiction” – whether excessive gaming is harmful anyway.

Is there such a thing as video game addiction? Addiction is defined as compulsive engagement in a rewarding experience despite serious repercussions. A person is generally only considered to be an alcoholic – addicted to alcohol – if they have trouble controlling how much or how often they drink and doing so causes problems (impairment) in social, work, family, or other aspects of life.

I would argue that children who are seriously into video gaming often do have trouble controlling how often they engage in it. And it can impair their home, social, and academic lives as a result.

The organizations that define diagnoses and whether something is considered to be a “disorder” are divided on the question of whether video game addiction is a true disorder. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) doesn’t think it is. The World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) does. I think the DSM-V is behind on this one.

Is it still harmful if my child plays a lot, but it isn’t at the level of a full-on “addiction”? I'd argue yes. It’s changing their developing brain, impacting their motivation for things outside of gaming, and negatively impacting the development of other important life skills.

Does gaming do anything harmful to your child’s growing brain? Studies indicate that compulsive game play and addictive drugs and alcohol alter the brain’s reward circuits in spookily similar ways. The brain-disease model of addiction states that addiction is a chronic disease of the brain’s reward system caused by continual exposure to substances that trigger dopamine release (and video gaming triggers dopamine release). The brain compensates by producing less dopamine and becoming less sensitive to it, forcing the user to take larger doses of the substance (or spend more time gaming) to experience the same level of reward. The neurochemical chaos produced by all this degrades the pathways that connect the reward center of the brain to the prefrontal cortex, which is crucial for planning, managing emotions, and controlling impulses. A review of 27 studies investigating the neurobiological correlates of compulsive gaming  concluded that gamers exhibit worse memory, poorer decision-making skills, impaired emotion regulation, inhibited prefrontal cortex functioning and disrupted electrochemical activity in their brain’s reward circuits. Does this sound familiar? When your child plays a lot of video games do you notice any of these symptoms?

Is your child being manipulated into gaming? The gaming industry has deliberately – to increase sales and make money – embraced addictive game design. Video games initially entice players with easy and predictable rewards. Then, to keep them coming back, they employ intermittent reinforcement in which players are surprised with rewards at random intervals. Goals and rules are explicitly defined, and progress is quantified. Your child can develop a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Increased virtual self-esteem. This can be so much easier online than in the real world. In the virtual world your child can take on a persona of their own design. They don’t have to be the social underachiever they may think they are at school. As the Times article stated: “Why suffer in a world that has no place for you when you can slip so easily into one that is designed to keep you happy, and is more than happy to keep you?”

Does video gaming reduce your child’s motivation to engage in other, more productive or valuable activities? I'd argue yes. I don’t have evidence to support this particular one, but I attribute the decline in time children spend reading directly to the increase in gaming. Why invest time and effort to achieve distant, long-term rewards and slow uncertain reinforcements when instant gratification is at hand? Certainly, gaming reduces time spent outdoors engaged in nature and physical activity. Children who have difficulty socializing with their peers are even more prone to gaming which further reduces the chances of their connecting with others.

Can your child be gaming too much if he or she still gets good grades? Yes. I believe the game-addicted young man profiled in the Times cover article is probably gifted. How else could he have spent as much as 12 hours a day playing video games and still maintain straight A’s? Some gifted children may feel so out of sync with their peers and the pace of instruction at school that they're more susceptible to the attractions of gaming. Children with ADHD have weaker impulse control and are more susceptible. Children with autism may avoid having to engage in real-world social interaction by gaming.

But aren't there some good things about gaming too? I'm sure there are. Your child may be improving their visual spatial skills, learning how to think strategically, and ...who knows?...maybe they'll grow up to be a video game designer someday. It might also simply be an enjoyable recreational activity to engage in. We all need to relax at times.

What should parents do? If gaming is really at a manageable level and you don't see it negatively impacting your child's development in any way, then it's probably harmless enough. But how many of us can say that? It's just too tempting. So I recommend pulling the plug. How one can actually do that is a story worthy of another blog.

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