What You Need to Know about Video Games, the Net, and Addictions

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This Blog is divided into a few sections; I wanted to start with a couple of typical examples to see if they fit what you are seeing or experiencing and your thoughts about each story.  Subsequent sections get into providing some information about video game and internet addiction and what we know about it.  I believe it is helpful to think of video games as “addictive”, rather than an “addiction”, which is a formal label suggesting a disorder.  While both ways of thinking can be true of different people, the idea is that you don’t need to be an “addict” to get some help to change a behaviour that is causing some problems.  This blog is intended to provide some information and to also be thought provoking.  

Meet John and Steve:

John is in high school and spends 4-5 hours per day playing video games and surfing the net, often looking for information about his favourite games or chatting about it.  He tends to play more on weekends, up to 8 hrs, and when his parents ask him to go out and hang out with friends, do homework, or go somewhere with them he gets agitated.  He would much rather play his games, which are way more fun. He goes to school, but has been sleeping less and less at nights and as a result is often groggy in the mornings and in his early classes.  Last week he missed his first class because he was just too tired.  John is a smart kid, and knows he can get A’s, but he’s getting B’s and a few C’s.  He’s not terribly concerned about it and is getting into conflict with his parents who are blaming everything on his video gaming.  He goes to school, and how he spends his free time is his concern.  His parents just don’t understand because they didn’t grow up with these games and don’t get that all of his friends play about the same amount.  

Steve is a student and started his first term in University living on campus in September.  He loves playing games, and without his parents nagging him found he started staying up most nights playing and missing first some, and then all of his classes.  He likes MMORPG’s, and is in a guild.  He would wake up with gaming on his mind, would get excited, and couldn’t wait till he started playing, advancing, and checking in with his guild.  He feels an attachment and responsibility towards his guild, and if he does not contribute he feel guilty. He tends to play 8-15 hours per day, depending.  He was shocked when he failed his first tests, and started lying to his parents about how he’s doing.  Over time, he started feeling depressed and the only thing that would make him feel great was playing.  He wasn’t drinking or doing drugs like other people, and didn’t see what the problem was.  Unfortunately Steve ended up failing his first term at school.  He decided his parents didn’t need to know.  He’ll just do better next term. 

Are Video Games Addictive?

In the past several years an increasing number of clients, parents, teachers, and therapists have been asking me about video gaming; and whether or not it can be an addiction.  Several colleagues had I have gained some expertise in this area through conducting research that we have presented internationally during the past few years.  This blog summarizes some of my thoughts on this question based on research and clinical experience.  In General The Sooner Someone Gets Help, The Less Help They Need!

First, the dry update for the professionals: Video gaming is not listed as an addiction in the current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5) (where we list and define all psychological disorders).  However, Internet Gaming Disorder is listed in section III (conditions warranting more research and experience before being included as a formal disorder).  What that means is that this is not yet considered a formal disorder in psychology, but is being researched and it will most probably be included as a formal diagnosis in the future.  Other countries such as China do consider Video gaming as not only an addiction but a serious concern warranting state action including monitoring and controlling net use and involuntary military-like treatment centres dedicated to video game addiction.  The NY Times had a very interesting video on the Chinese solution which you can see here: 

NY Times China Web Junkies 

I’m certain that this video will create strong emotions in viewers, some of whom will find it quite shocking.  Clearly different countries have very strong thoughts about the label and seriousness of the issue and how to approach it and their ways may not resonate well with our thinking.  

So what’s an addiction anyways?

An addiction can be considered any behaviour which is habitual and hard to break and causes distress or harm to the person engaged in it, whether or not it includes ingesting a drug or substance.  “Harm” can include things like falling behind socially, academically, or occupationally; as well as emotional and even physiological problems. 

People sometimes think of addictions as only relating to abusing a substance and having absolutely no control over it, sort of like you see on TV shows like “intervention”.  We now know that behaviours, like gambling and sex, can be just as addicting as certain drugs and have their own negative consequences. Like any other problem or disorder, addictions also exist on a continuum from mild and barely a concern to severe and quite serious and therefore require different levels of help ranging from a simple advice from a trusted person or professional all the way to long term residential treatments.  So the first barrier to getting help for video gaming is that people often just don’t think it may be a problem and don’t seek help.

Once people think they may need some  help, they then often run into the problem of where to get the help.  I have seen existing treatment programs refuse to help someone struggling with excessive video gaming because it’s not listed as a “disorder”, or simply not know how to help them.  I would agree that people struggling with Video Game or internet problems should have their own separate kinds of treatment rather than being in a traditional addiction program.  Unfortunately such dedicated programs are greatly lacking in North America for Video Gaming and Net addictions.

What Makes Video Games Addictive?

Video games have many elements that make them addictive.  They are very fun and stimulating, they are designed and tested (sometimes by psychologists) to have optimal challenge levels to make people not get bored (if it’s too easy) or give up playing (if it’s too difficult).  In fact many of the reward systems that have proven so successful in making Video Lottery Terminals so addictive are also used in the development of video games.  The Avatars  (your in-game-representation) and gaming environments are so realistic that in game achievements become just as rewarding and “real” to people as real life achievements.  The gamer’s mind can get tricked into thinking that their game achievements are real while they slowly fall behind their peers in real life achievements.  

Game relationships (in guilds, chats, etc..) become real and sometimes take the place of real life relationships. The above make video games an extremely powerful form of entertainment; in fact the industry has now overtaken the movie industry as the most lucrative entertainment format netting billions of dollars per year for the industry.   

This isn’t necessarily bad; I’m all for good entertainment.  However for some people the game time and pattern does become excessive and takes the place of other important things such as school, work, and even social relations with real life family and friends.  This is especially true if the person is already struggling with friendships in the real world due to shyness, anxiety, or poor academic achievement caused by ADHD or just lack of proper motivation and skills. 

The idea that people need to have “disorders” or “diseases” before they get help is an old fashioned and even harmful notion.  This confusion gets in the way of people getting help they need and leads to the “I don’t need to see a psychologist for THAT” reaction.  Luckily most of my clients lose this concern after their first session.  Often gaining good insight into our behaviour is enough to prompt change, but of course sometimes we need more help.  If you have more questions about your own online or game activity or that of a loved ones contact me and I’ll be happy to help.Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0) | Permalink