Concern about the effects of video games, particularly on children, has existed since video games first became popular in the 1970s. Despite nearly fifty years of concern, however, there is still no clear evidence on the exact impact of video games and what adverse effects, if any, they have. So, while some will suggest that gaming addiction is a problem, others will highlight that games can help children develop physical, cognitive and social skills.
More recently the impact of coronavirus in many parts of the world has increased the use of screens by people of all ages, while also limiting the availability of non-screen-based activities. And the ubiquity of screens — many people, even children, will have multiple devices — has compounded those concerns further because the devices needed to attend school or work are the same devices that can play video games.
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What is gaming addiction?
Worlds Best Rehab caught up with Founassi Ridha, lead therapist at Villa Paradiso Tunisia, widely recognized by professionals as the best clinic in the World. According to Founassi, video game addiction is a compulsion to play games. However, there is no precise definition, in part because the phenomenon is relatively new but also because the area is so broad and there is not a good definition of ‘video game’. Gaming addiction is psychological, not physical, and formed as a result of the brain rewiring its reward pathways. Addicts will associate gaming with the pleasure that comes from dopamine. In turn the association the brain makes with this and gaming will result in the addict seeking more and their gaming becoming compulsive.
The difficulty in definition comes from identifying what, exactly, is the trigger for the addiction. Defined broadly video games come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from an action-packed first-person shooting game to a sedate and thoughtful adaptation of a traditional board game, but both can trigger the creation of dopamine. And how games are played will vary enormously, initially games were played alone or with one other, physically present, player, but now games can feature several thousand people playing simultaneously online.
Others have pointed that video games can have benefits for players. Sometimes, these are intentional, and many developers specialize in producing games that have educational benefits, for example setting problems for the player that require specific skills from a curriculum to solve. Other games may have benefits for players because of the cognitive or physical skills they require. Some research has suggested that gamers have improved cognition skills, even though the games played were not designed with this in mind.
However, there is growing evidence that — even if further definition is needed — gaming addiction is a problem. Research has been varied with studies showing anything between 1% and 16% of people having a problem with gaming. The longest study so far, in which researchers from Brigham Young University studied adolescents over a six-year period, suggested that around 10% of gamers show signs of addiction.
Internet Gaming Disorder is not, yet, a recognized mental health illness, but has been included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as a condition for further study. While this does not mean it will eventually become a formally defined disorder, it is an indicator that there is enough concern and evidence that the disorder, or something related to it, will be added to a future DSM.
Effects of video game addiction
Just like any other addiction anyone can become an addict, however, there are some that are more at risk. And not all games are inherently risky, many fulfil a useful function as recreation or even have educational and social aspects that bring benefits. Unfortunately, the business model of many developers means that many games will carry the risk of addiction.
Many game developers are reliant on retaining players, either to generate subscriptions or advertising revenue, and unfortunately this tends to result in game design that has addictive features. Early games were usually sold as a single product and the developer recouped their costs that way. Many modern games now run on servers that need to be maintained, and producers have to ensure ongoing revenue. Some gaming industry whistleblowers have revealed that developers were deliberately attempting to hijack the brain’s reward mechanisms with regular upgrades or bonuses to keep players coming back for more.
There is some evidence that younger children are most at risk, although the reasons behind this remain unclear. Part of the higher risk might be because their brains are still developing and there is more neuroplasticity — essentially, it’s easier to rewire their brains — or it might be as simple as the fact that they have more discretionary time to play games than most adults.
There is also some research showing that online multiplayer games are more addictive. Massive multiplayer online role-playing games, or MMORPGs, have exploded in popularity as software, hardware, and the internet’s infrastructure have improved. Ironically these usually have a social aspect, many young players will meet and play with their real-life friends in them, but research suggests a correlation between these games and poorer health, sleep and academic performance.
Treating video gaming addiction
If you are concerned about possibly being addicted, or thinking about getting help for a child’s video game addiction, there are a number of options. Even though gaming addiction remains a subject of debate, there are several benefits to establishing more control over gaming, ensuring that gaming is balanced with other physical and in-person activities. This can be especially important if you are concerned about a child’s gaming addiction since there is the risk of some the adverse impacts, even if not addictive, compounding as they age.
Medication can be an option in some circumstances. There is a link between gaming addition and some conditions like ADHD, although it’s not clear which direction this link is. Other conditions like depression or anxiety, which can be treated with prescription drugs might also be involved in a gaming addiction, so treating these can help.
Other options include therapy like cognitive behavioral therapy or group therapy. Given the ubiquity of video games, and the near impossibility of modern life without a computer or smartphone the aim of treatment is not to stop gaming, but instead to develop a healthy and controlled relationship with games and technology. Therapy options help the addict better understand their behavior and addiction, and develop techniques to help control their compulsion.
Inpatient treatment is also possible for those who have a severe addiction. Again, the aim of this will be to develop a healthy relationship with technology and devise ways to ensure the problem addiction does not recur. However, the benefit of inpatient treatment is that it is a very controlled environment, meaning that the focus can be on treatment and there will be no temptations to return to previous negative behaviors.
Understanding of video game addiction is still evolving. However, it is clear that games can have both positive and negative impacts. While it’s impossible to identify who, exactly, is at risk the evidence does suggest that younger people are more at risk and that the cycle of addiction developed by games can be destructive.