Video game addictions: Are they becoming a real diagnosis?

Parents who think their children are "addicted" to their video games, in many cases, may be right.

A study of 1,200 U.S. children and teenagers, found that almost 10 percent showed signs of pathological video-game use -- meeting the definition normally used for gauging pathological gambling.

Recently, researchers have been interested in the potential for young people to develop an unhealthy preoccupation with video games and the Internet. Dr. Raun Melmed, co-founder of the Melmed Center in Scottsdale, Ariz., says it's becoming more and more common to see children with video game issues in his office.  We sat down with Dr. Melmed for some Q&A about excessive video gaming. 

Lets talk about who is most at risk of being a video game addict.

Dr. Melmed: Males are two to three times more likely than females to become addicted. The part of the brain that creates “reward feelings” is more active in men than women while playing these games. The majority of video game addicts are males under the age of 30. They often are children with poor self-esteem and social problems.

So which games are the most alluring or addictive?

Dr. Melmed: A survey of computer game players conducted by Entertainment Software Association 2005 showed that players of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games, MMORG, such as World of Warcraft, were more likely to play for more than two hours per day than other gamers. A Harris Interactive online poll (2007) of 1,187 US youths aged 8–18 showed 81percent of them played video games at least one time per month. On the average, teen girls played 8 hours per week and teen boys played for 14 hours per week. This helped delineate what was considered to be pathological; boys averaging 13 hours per week of reported game play and girls averaging 10 hours. Overall 8.5 percent could be classified as pathological. A survey conducted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (2009) of 9,000 Canadian students from Grades 7 to 12, showed almost 10% have "screen time" for seven or more hours a day. In fairness, a study using the Child Behavior Checklist, found no link between the extent of video game use and attention problems. A study in published in Pediatrics found problematic gaming behaviors in about 4 percent of children, far less common than originally thought. In addition the association with underlying mental health problems was emphasized.

What’s a parent to do?

Dr. Melmed: Many feel that video game addiction is overly focused on while the underlying mental health issues root to the problem are ignored. A parent’s role is to love, educate and keep their children safe. Parental oversight on their children’s use of the Internet is imperative. It is the job of parents to protect the kingdom of childhood and set boundaries in all areas. It’s the Internet age - do you know where your children are? Many young children are more tech and Internet savvy than their parents. The opportunities to gain solid information and other advantages of the Internet far outweigh the negatives. Be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water!

What are some solutions?

Dr. Melmed: First, learn as much as you can about the Internet! Education is the best intervention tool of all. Place the computer in a public area of the home with the screen facing out. Avoid computers in the bedroom! Protecting your child is a parental responsibility, not an invasion of the child’s privacy. Checking the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) ratings. Selecting appropriate games - both in content and level of development. Play videogames with your children to experience firsthand the game’s content. Make playing a social occasion. Invite friends over for your child to play video games with. As a family, establish and agree to written rules for video game and Internet use that include guidelines for how much time can be spent online (there are devices to help control playing time) and appropriate sites to visit. Permit play only at certain times such as after dinner or on weekends. Schedule ''reality breaks'' in between paying time. Warn children about potential serious dangers of Internet contacts and relationships. Explain the risks of meeting people online. Encourage your child to be critical of all information found online. Let your children earn video game play privileges. Develop incentive systems to allow them to do that. Finally, be a role model for your children – when choosing the types of video games you play as an adult.

What are the effects of excessive videogame playing?

Dr. Melmed: In a study of Television and Video Game Exposure and the Development of Attention Problems published in Pediatrics in 2010, researchers found that those children

exceeding 2 hours per day were 1.5 to 2 times more inattentive than their peers. Children who play 4 to 5 hours per day have little time for socializing, developing hobbies or doing homework. They read less and have slumping grades. Boys might never learn to develop social skill such as talking to girls. Lack of participation in sports results in less exercising and becoming overweight. In adulthood, compulsive gaming can jeopardize jobs and relationships. Children exposed to violence can become: “immune” or numb to the horror of violence, imitate the violence, and consequently possibly show more aggressive behavior. This is especially true for children with emotional and learning problems. However, in a study by Ferguson (2010) neither video game violence exposure, nor television violence exposure, were prospective predictors of serious acts of youth aggression or violence in a sample of 302 mostly Hispanic youth. In contrast, levels of depressive symptoms were strong predictors of serious aggression and violence in that population.

I think most people want to know if this is really an addiction?

Dr. Melmed: Playing video games leads to feeling of control, high levels of excitement and incentive to competition. The lure of a fantasy world for a child who is unpopular at school allows them to feel competent and dominant. For them, the virtual life becomes more appealing.

Defining Addiction

i. The person needs more and more of a substance or behavior to keep him or her going.
ii. If the person does not get the substance or behavior, withdrawal symptoms result including feeling miserable, and becoming angry, violent, or depressed.
iii. Can you always control your gaming activity?” Center for On-Line Addiction, publishes warning signs for video game addiction
1. Playing for increasing amounts of time
2. Thinking about gaming during other activities
3. Gaming to escape from real-life problems, anxiety, or depression
4. Lying to friends and family to conceal gaming
5. Feeling irritable when trying to cut down on gaming
6. Isolated, dropping out of activities and giving up hobbies.
6. Treatment
a. Recognition that video game addiction is not harmless can ruin lives.
b. Online Gamers Anonymous, a twelve-step, self-help, support and recovery organization for gamers and their loved ones who are suffering from computer game playing.

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