Although video game addiction is not officially recognized as a disorder by the American Medical Association, there is increasing evidence that people of all ages, especially teens and pre-teens, are using computer and video games compulsively or excessively.
"Video games are designed to appeal to a growing audience of players," explained Pediatrician Laurie Penix, M.D. "With better graphics, more realistic characters, and greater challenges, it's not surprising that some teens would rather play their video games than hang out with friends, play sports, or watch television."
For some teens, gaming has become an uncontrollable compulsion. This is especially true for boys in the pre-teen and teenage years. Studies estimate that 10-15% of gamers exhibit signs that meet the World Health Organization's criteria for addiction. Just like gambling and other compulsive behaviors, teens can become so enthralled in the fantasy world of gaming that they neglect their family, friends, work, and school.
Symptoms of Video Game Addiction
Teens need only exhibit two or three of these symptoms to be considered "addicted" to computer, video or Internet gaming:
- Preoccupation: Being preoccupied with the game or computer when the child is away from it, and seeming distracted, irritable, or disinterested in daily activities.
-Loss of Time: A child may go gaming with the intent to spend 15 or 20 minutes, but will keep extending the time until several hours have passed.
-Negative Impact on Other Areas of Life: Look for warning signs like missing meals, losing sleep, dropping activities, skipping showers, missing homework assignments, and growing distant from family or friends.
- "Hiding in the Game" to avoid or escape negative situations.
-Defensiveness: Denial about time spent gaming is often an indication that something is wrong, especially if the person seems unconcerned that friends and family feel neglected.
-Misuse of Money: Spending a disproportionate amount of money continually upgrading hardware, software packages, and accessories.
-Mixed Feelings: Use of the "substance" - in this case, the video game - initially causes euphoric feelings, but that euphoria is quickly followed by guilt.
"Children and teens spend many unstructured hours in front of their computers or TVs, playing games, social networking, and instant messaging," Dr. Penix continued. "It's normal for your children to want to play games and chat with friends, within limits. But parents need to be aware that these activities all have obsessive qualities built into them which perpetuate immediate gratification and feedback."
Many middle and high school teens are drawn to massively multiplayer online role playing games, such as World of Warcraft, Call of Duty or Halo. Games of this type connect players in cyberspace, who then form "guilds" or "clans." Generally, each player is represented by an avatar-usually a three-dimensional character that either the game or the player creates. Guild members may be from all over the world, and the missions can go on for days. Membership on these teams becomes the players' sense of community.
"These games are designed to quickly immerse your child," Dr. Penix continued. "Players soon begin to feel pressure to get ahead or not to let down their teammates."
"When other areas of a child's life begin to suffer, parents may have cause to take corrective action," Dr. Penix advised. "There are several common warning signs of pathological behavior. These include fantasizing or talking about game characters or missions when offline; lying about or hiding how much time is spent playing; disobeying parental limits; losing interest in sports and hobbies; choosing the game over time with friends; and continuing to play despite plummeting grades. An addicted gamer's physical appearance may also change as he loses sleep, neglects to shower, and skips meals.
"Many cases of gaming overuse can be curtailed by setting rules and remaining vigilant. But for some young people, using the Internet or playing video games becomes a compulsion that they are unable to resist.
"When a parent thinks that his or her child has a problem, you may be tempted to get rid of the computer, Xbox or Playstation all together," said Dr. Penix. "Instead, start talking directly about your concerns, and set some strict guidelines to help them normalize their behavior. This can help your children learn to game and navigate the online world responsibly. In addition, you can gradually introduce substitute activities into their lives, like sports, hobbies, or academics, so they regain a balance of interests.
"However, if you suspect deeper problems, make an appointment with your physician or a mental health professional to help find the resources that will work for your family."
Other Tips to Curb Use:
- Ensure that online activities take place where you can see what's going on. Don't let your children spend time on the Internet behind closed doors.
-Make sure that kids know that their responsibilities, such as homework and chores, need to be finished before the computer turns on.
-Set daily limits on acceptable amounts of screen time -- and make sure that these limits aren't exceeded.
- Know what games your kids play and the game's content, including if it is particularly addictive or violent.
-Get kids involved in offline activities, such as sports teams, cultural or community service activities.
-Know your children's screen names and passwords. If they are active on social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook, check their accounts.
-Learn how to check the computer's history files to confirm what your children have been doing on the Internet.
"The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children spend on average no more than two hours a day with all screen media," Dr. Penix concluded.
"That includes time spent on the TV, video games, computer, and iPhone. Children will always ask for more and parents have to enforce the boundaries. The goal is to strike the right balance for your family-one that also includes school, sports, exercise, and social activities."
Laurie Penix, M.D., is a board certified pediatrician affiliated with Salem Community Hospital's Active medical staff. Her office is located at the Salem Pediatric Care Center, 2020 East State Street in Salem, (330) 332-0084.