There is still no wide consensus in the scientific community whether video game addiction is actually real or not – if it is a mental disorder that changes the brain and causes uncontrollable cravings, similar to drug or gambling addiction. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) in May 2013 concluded that there is still insufficient evidence to include video game addiction as an official psychiatric disorder. When people refer to “video game addiction”, especially when it comes to children, they mean spending too much time playing video games – sometimes for more than 12 hours a day!
Indeed, when gamers admit to themselves that they are “addicted”, they do not mean so in a clinical sense, but they are doing it excessively, and at times compulsively, because they enjoy it.
Scientists have also observed that unlike other addictions, too much video gaming goes away on its own, even without treatment. Most video gamers are able to stop themselves without going into withdrawal.
Why Your Child is Addicted to Video Games
Games become “addictive” because it triggers the brain’s reward system, and shapes a child’s behavior. For a child, beating a high score or his friend’s score, getting in the leaderboard, getting points for killing an enemy or a monster, or moving up a level is very rewarding. Being admired by his friends for being a good player also massages the ego and feels good. Knowing that a surprise may be just around the corner makes it hard for a child to stop playing.
Massive multiplayer online role-playing games or MMORPGs immerse the player in real time because of the seemingly endless possibility of discovering more powerful loot or items. He is also enticed to complete events and achievements that requires a lot of gaming time.
Gamers who play games with social aspects, such as the World of Warcraft, spend the most time playing, sometimes for more than 40 hours a week – even more than a full-time job. The social element makes gaming even more compulsive, and hard to quit. Social gaming satisfies the human need for being in charge, feeling competent, and feeling connected with others. Some online gamers even feel that they are “duty bound” to go online because others rely on them – or their “clan” needs them for a “scrim”.
Symptoms and Bad Effects of Video Game Addiction
Although the existence of video game addiction as a disease is not yet settled in the scientific community, it has been observed that even excessive video game playing have serious negative effects on many kids. Here are some of the bad effects of video game addiction:
- Lack of sleep – Kids who play excessively do so up to the wee hours of the morning. This results in sleep deprivation, which is more harmful to minds that are still developing. When they have school the next day, it affects their attention and learning.
- Lack of physical exercise – Also kids who play excessively exercise less, if at all. This results in other health problems, as well as losing the opportunity to develop brain since exercise is good for the brain (link to RSK).
- Other Physical problems – Overuse of mouse or controller may lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. Other complain of dry eyes, migraine headaches, and back aches. Other gamers also neglect their hygiene.
- Social isolation – Excessive playing takes time away from kids to interact with family members and friends. Being isolated most of the time deprive a child from developing social skills that he could learn from hanging out with friends. Although online games are mostly social, the skills kids can learn from it are very limited because they are not face-to-face interactions.
- Having gaming as his only focus in life – A child can be so obsessed with gaming that he is only motivated by it, talks about it all the time, and most of his thinking centers on playing.
- Neglect of school activities and responsibilities – Because of games, some kids are truanting from school to play (Keepers, 1990; Grifﬁths & Hunt, 1998), not doing homework/getting bad marks at school (Grifﬁths & Hunt, 1998; Phillips et al, 1995)
- Lack of interest in reading and other hobbies that have educational benefit – When a child plays excessively, he is less interested in other hobbies that make him develop intellectually such as reading a variety of books and engaging in creative activities or other skills he would need in the future.
- Escaping life problems instead of confronting them – Some kids who lead stressful lives find escape in a game’s imaginary world. By escaping, the kids are prevented from facing their problems and finding solutions, which is an important life skill to develop while young.
- Irritability, depression and annoyance when unable to play – Being deprived of playing time for some kids make them act up and gets emotional about not being able to play. A very small minority experience withdrawal symptoms like cold sweats and anger; developing migraines and back problems and, sometimes even death
- Feeling guilty for wasting time that could have been spent in doing something productive – Of course time is not wasted playing games if one enjoys it and do it in moderation, but when kids do this excessively, they may regret not doing something else. In the future they may realize that they have wasted time and opportunity, and this could lead to regret and feeling guilty.
- Being deceitful – Excessive gaming can lead a child to be dishonest or deceitful to his parents about time spent on video gaming. In some cases they may even steal physical video games or money to be spent on gaming. This could lead to serious personal troubles.
How to Break Your Child’s Video Game Addiction
In moderation, video games can have a lot of benefits. However, when video game playing is excessive to the point that it brings about the bad effects above, parents should seriously consider limiting their kids’ gaming time.
Here are some tips to break your child’s video game addiction:
- Talk to your child to put his video gaming in perspective – Explain to him that it is an entertainment or a past time, and is not what his life is about. Make him be aware that success in the gaming world is virtual or imaginary, and has nothing to do with real life success. It is more worthwhile to earn points in real life (by getting good grades, earning real money, learning a real life useful skill) than in fantasy worlds.
- Determine a reasonable time for your child to play in moderation – A good time would be one hour on a school day, and 2 – 3 hours maximum on weekends.
- Set specific rules for gaming time limit and be firm about it – Make it clear to your child specifically how much time you are allowing him to play (one hour, two hours, only until 9 pm), and make sure that you strictly enforce it. Giving him leniency every once in a while can become a slippery slope, and your child will not take the rule seriously anymore.
- Create consequences for not following your rule – You can ban your child for gaming for a week if he exceeds your time limit.
- Make game time a reward – Make your child’s gaming time contingent to his actually fulfilling or failing a goal. For example, you can allow your child to play on school days if he maintains a certain grade, but if not, he can only play on weekends. Or allow your child to play only if he has done his chores.
- Track your child’s game time – Games, especially the great ones, are designed to be immersive, and your child can easily lose track of time playing them. Most games also entice your child to keep moving up levels, or to keep trying until he succeeds in a level, and this could make him so engaged that what seems like an hour of play is actually already 3 hours. Logging your child’s game time can also make him aware of how much of his time is spent playing games. If he really play games excessively, it can be a wake- up call for him, and that would motivate you to cut back.
- Use tools to set limits for his game time – Use tools such as a kitchen timer to limit his playing. If that fails, buy a timer that automatically turns off his computer after a given amount of time. Other ways to set limit is to allow him to play on certain days only, play only with specific persons, or allow him to buy only specific games. There is also a software called “Cold Turkey Blocker” that can be used to automate blocking of games in the computer.
- Be ready for “I’m in the middle of a game” protest – Teach your child to save a game mid-level. Make your child aware that his gaming time is almost over, and that if he goes over, there will be consequences, like not being able to play the next day.
- Discourage your excessively gaming child to avoid giant open-ended exploration games, RPGs and other games that is hard to stop or pause. Choose games instead that he can play in short bursts of time.
- Put your child’s gaming console or computer where you can see it – this will make him aware that you are monitoring his gaming hours and you can see if he is playing excessively.
- Introduce your child to other fun things to do that offers a variety of enjoyment, and could even earn him real life points – These can range from physical activities like playing sports, biking or running to less physical, like reading, learning to play an instrument, coding, or going out with friends.
- Recruit your child’s sibling or friends to help him take his mind away from gaming, and indulge in other fun activities.
- Make your child quit cold turkey – In a worst case scenario, when your child becomes dysfunctional as you are trying to limit his gaming, you can lock away the game or uninstall it from the gaming computer until your child realizes that he can live without video games.
- In extreme cases, consult a therapist or pediatrician to cure your child’s “addiction” to video games.