Video Games: A New Addiction

When you think about the word “addiction”, people often associate it with the likes of drugs, alcohol, or gambling.

However, in this growing culture of television, computers, and media, we as parents also need to look out for more insidious habits.

Internet and video game addiction is becoming a reality amongst pre-teens and adolescents.  A survey done in 2009 of 1000 children ranging from 8 to 18 years old suggested that 8.6% of video gamers should be considered “pathological players” based on criteria used to determine pathological gambling.

Addiction seems like a strong term to apply to video games, but take a moment to consider what defines addiction:

  • excessive use that gets in the way of daily life function
  • increasing tolerance to what is needed for a “high”
  • withdrawal symptoms
  • willingness to face negative consequences for the sake of the habit

I have seen a good number of pre-teens and adolescents who just may fit this picture.

This transforms the way I look at video games.  Although I have always been concerned about how much time children spend watching TV or playing video games, I have never quite looked at video games as a possible source of addiction.  Labeling it for what it is in some severe cases is enlightening and sobering, all the more so since video games are readily accessible at home for many kids.

Even when there is not a true addiction, the problem of excessive screen time (TV, gaming, internet and social media) deserves our attention as parents.  It’s natural to focus more on concrete and imminent dangers.  We worry about safety issues.  Sexual predators.  Drugs or alcohol.  Teen pregnancy and STDs.  Video games seem quite safe and inconsequential compared to such hard topics.

Yet, consider these statistics I read about recently:

  • 92% of American children 2 to 17 years old play video games.
  • 79% of video games with an E rating (meant to indicate that the game is suitable for 6 yrs old and up) actually contain violence.
  • Amongst fourth-graders, 73% of boy and 59% of girls listed a violent video game as their favorite.  And amongst these children, more than half reported that their preferred type of game is a first-person shooter format where the gamer uses a weapon to kill before being killed.
  • 42% of children 0 to 8 years old have a TV in their bedroom.  One in three are under 2 years old.

These stats remind me how influential and widespread video games are among even the young.  The precedence is often set early on, especially as more infants than ever before are exposed to lots of screen time. Although parents may differ drastically in their opinion on what is or isn’t too violent, there are two issues that I see on a consistent basis in clinic that makes me take the influence of video games seriously.

One issue is the naturally addictive nature of television and video games.  Without guidance and regulation, children easily spend more time than we may realize absorbed in front of the screen.  Whether it’s television, internet, or video games, this is all time that probably could be better spent in creative play, physical activity, school work, helping with chores, exploring hobbies, family time, and sleep.

Another issue is the result of excessive video gaming, whether or not there is truly addictive behavior.  I commonly find problems of insomnia, fatigue from staying up too late, poor school performance, lack of focus and attention, as well as decreased motivation in social relationships.  In more severe cases, I also commonly notice problems of anxiety, depression, and aggression.  Although video games don’t automatically turn our children into criminals, the messages underlying violent themes in video games are going to affect our children’s perspective and perception in some way or another.  Violent video games have been shown to increase aggressive thoughts and behavior.  They are also associated with worse school performance.

What can we do as parents?

Monitor what our kids are seeing and playing.  Don’t rely on game-rating systems.  Instead, check out Common Sense Media for lots of great reviews and advice on parenting children in this media age. Kids-in-Mind provides ratings on movies as well.  Be prepared to discuss the things they see and hear, especially from peers and on the internet.

Keep the computer and TV in public areas of the home.  When children have a TV or computer in their own room, it’s easy to disappear and hide out in their bedroom.  It’s harder to monitor not only what they are doing, but also how much time is spent in front of the screen.

Engage our kids with real-life activities.  Keep them busy and give them responsibilities within the family.  Help them explore hobbies and interests, and encourage social settings where essential skills are fostered in group interaction.  Rather than play a sport via a video game, get them outdoors and active.

Set up priorities and time limits.  Kids will always test limits, so make consistent ground rules as to what needs to be finished before video games are allowed, as well as how much screen time is allowed.  The AAP recommends limiting screen time to less than 2 hours a day, and only after 2 years old.  Screen time includes television, internet, and video games.

Join them in playing their video game.  You can maximize this time by spending it together.  This also allows you to monitor what they are playing and discuss what they are seeing.  Great conversations can sprout from joining our kids in their interests.

Be a role model.  Our kids watch how we are using media too, whether it’s the television, computer, or our smart phone.  Perhaps we are modeling addictive use too.  They observe what we define and expect of social interaction and relationships.  As we monitor how our kids are spending time, we must naturally assess our own habits.

Our kids are growing up in a relational culture that is so drastically different than prior generations due to the impact of technology and media.

We need to understand what our kids are seeing and how it impacts them.  We need to emphasize relationships, quality time, and communication all that much more.  We need to teach them “media literacy”, which involves wise and positive choices in how they use media and interpret its messages.  Most of all, we need to stay involved and aware.

TV and video games are not bad.  But they certainly do not need to occupy hours of our daily life, and we do need to recognize that they can become a source of addiction.  Even the young can develop addictive behavior.  The challenges of parenting in this age of media is entirely new territory to tread.

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