What are the risk factors for video game addiction?

GAME OVER by Ivan T Many parents are concerned about the amount of time that their kids spend playing video games - perhaps with good reason, given that, for some kids, playing games may increase aggression. But is there a way to predict whether gaming will become an addiction? And if gaming becomes a problem, what are the possible outcomes? A study to be published in the February 2011 issue of Pediatrics attempted to answer these questions by following youth over a 2-year span.

Douglas Gentile and his colleagues collected data from over 3000 students between Grades 3 and 8 in Singapore schools. Their assessment of "pathological gaming" included questions about whether their grades have dropped due to gaming, and whether they skipped meals in order to play. Similar to previous studies in a number of countries, gaming was problematic for slightly less than 10% of the sample.

Previous researchers have often thought of gaming addiction as being secondary to other problems; that is, kids who are depressed or who have social skills deficits use gaming as an escape. Gentile and his colleagues found that, although some students play games as a coping strategy, pathological gaming predicted higher levels of depression, anxiety, and social phobia that diminished when game-playing was reduced. This finding suggests that gaming addiction may be a separate disorder, although the researchers surmised that mental health difficulties and pathological gaming probably reinforce one another - depressed youth may turn to gaming, which could make their depression worse over time.

But what are the characteristics of youth who become pathological gamers? Impulsive youth with weaker social skills, less empathy, and a limited ability to regulate their emotions were more likely to develop problematic gaming habits. These youth spent more time gaming even before it became problematic - those who eventually became gaming addicts spent over 30 hours per week gaming, compared to 19 hours for the other subjects. I was shocked to see that "typical" young people played for over 2 hours per day - as portable gaming devices become more popular and cell phone technology advances, it seems likely that North American youth may also spend an increasing amount of time gaming. However, pathological gamers in the study also spent an increasing amount of time in LAN game centres, where several computers are linked to allow multiplayer gaming. These are certainly less common in North America than they are in Singapore.

Once gaming became problematic, several negative effects were observed. The relationships between youth and their parents deteriorated and their grades dropped. They were exposed to increasingly violent games and began to see aggression as more normal, and they started to see the behaviour of others as being more aggressive as well. They began to have more aggressive fantasies and to behave in a more physically and socially aggressive manner as well. This combination of problems is concerning - pathological gamers begin to believe that violence is more normal at the same time as they are withdrawing from their parents' influence.

What do these findings mean for parents? For now, it's uncertain. These results need to be replicated with other youth in other countries before any firm conclusions can be drawn. It's safe to say that, as in other areas of life, balance is important playing games at the expense of social contact may put youth at risk for greater problems down the road. If gaming occurs at the expense of physical activity, youth could lose out on the potential benefits.

Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only, and are not intended to replace professional or medical advice. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor.