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Video Game Addiction, Obsession, or Habit: How Much is Too Much?

Video Game Addiction_mini

I am often asked some variant of this question, and a few of my recent cases have stimulated me to explore more evidence-based answers to improve the quality of my response. As it turns out, many have written fairly extensively on the subject of how much video gaming is too much.  It has been proposed that two to three hours per day of playing the games is now an average amount of time for the average adolescent to play video games or spend time on the computer (APA Task Force, 2008).

There are many reasons for parents to be concerned about their child’s seeming obsession with video games, and the amount of time that their children are playing them.  Initial concerns were that the games, which were largely played by adolescent males, stimulated aggressive instincts and increased the likelihood of violence in the, again, largely, male population who played the games.  These concerns were fueled and heightened by the massacre at Columbine, Colorado, on April 20, 1999, in which two high school students went on a killing rampage.  These two students had reported that they spent a great deal of time playing “Doom,” a gory video game with a great deal of violent and aggressive themes.  It was also inferred that the boys had spent a great deal of time watching violent movies–which may inspire another article at a later date.

It has been almost 13 years since those killings.  In that time, video games have continued to sell at an increasing rate.  Some facts are worthy of noting here to inform parents on just how widespread these games are becoming.  In an article on video games in the December, 2011, edition of The Economist, it was reported that the video game industry had global sales of over $56 billion in 2010.  This represents more than two times the gross sales of the music industry during that period, for example.  The article noted that, in addition to the current high sales, the industry continues to grow at almost 10% per year.  There is no doubt that this is a huge industry, and it is getting stronger.

Where is this money being spent, you may ask?  Again, according to the article in The Economist, the popular game Call of Duty: Black Ops grossed $650 million in 2010.  Amazing, huh?  What is more amazing is that the game grossed $650 million in the first five days after its release!  Yes, you read that right.  The game actually grossed $1 billion in sales in the first month.  A related game, Modern Warfare 3, grossed $750 million in the first 5 days after its release.

Now that I have your attention, let me allay your fears somewhat.  The article went on to say that, as opposed to the solitary teen male sitting in his room, playing violent games, and never interacting with another human, many teenagers play Halo with their friends rather than solo, and online games with multiple players, sometimes in the hundreds and thousands, are increasingly popular.  In fact, many teenagers, again, mostly boys, appear to use the military strategy games as a way to make friends and spend time with other boys. For example, my 11-year-old son and his friend recently spent two hours playing, you guessed it, Call of Duty. As I was working on this article at the time, I listened closely to what they were saying, and I noted how much they were talking.  To my relief, it sounded pretty much like my friends and I many years ago, when we played “cowboys and Indians” or pretended we were soldiers with sticks and toy rifles.  Therefore, the games may in some ways be stimulating social interaction and cooperation, as opposed to rewarding social isolation and aggression, these days.

There is also a lot of evidence that the games are changing, and that the faces of those who play the games are changing.  For example, the article on video games in The Economist reported that 72% of American households now play video games of some sort and that the average game player is, brace yourself, 37-years-old.  The article credits innovations such as Sony’s Play Station, which was introduced in December 1994, as boosting sales to older players.  The article also reported that today’s parents, who are often children of the 1970’s and early 1980’s, are now in their 30’s, and grew up more technically savvy.  They also grew up playing video games, which helps to “normalize” their children’s desire to play the games.

Not only are today’s “gamers” getting older, more females are now playing the games as well.  The article reports that slightly over two-fifths (42%) of today’s gamers are female.  The article credits the Nintendo Wii, which was introduced in 2006, with much of the increased popularity among women.  The Wii featured fitness programs and got gamers out of their seats and moving.  There has also been an increase in the game’s availability, in that many of today’s games can be played online, and many can be accessed by mobile phones.  These aspects have also helped to increase the number of female gamers, as well as the number of older gamers.  In fact, Angry Birds–an online game that is so prevalent I need not tell you that it is not really an x-rated game that promotes violence, in spite of the word “angry” in the title–is now one of today’s most popular games.  In fact, games played on mobile phones now account for approximately $8 billion of the above-referenced $56 billion in sales. Also popular are games of strategy, such as Bejeweled, a game involving no violence, a full version of which recently sold over 50 million copies.

It should also be noted that other countries are contributing to the success of the video game industry.  China is now the second largest market for video games.  (To again make the comparison to the music industry, China is not even in the top twenty countries for music sales.) In fact, scientists are watching China and other countries closely to see if the amount of violence or other social ills parallels the rise in video game sales. We are clearly in the midst of a worldwide experiment as regards the ultimate outcome of whether or not video games are good, evil, or have the potential for both.  Along these lines, more companies are using video games to help their employees find creative solutions to problems at work. Furthermore, scientists are using video games to generate more creative solutions to some of their problems.  For example, researchers at the University of Washington (2008) released a program called “Foldit,” in which they asked gamers to find the most energy-efficient shapes of a protein by modifying its structure.  Thousands of possibilities were generated by the gamers’ responses, and the researchers published a paper in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology about the serious contributions to the field generated by the game.  In fact, the word “gamification” has been introduced to describe the psychological principles of game design that apply to motivating workers and engaging customers.  Could we possibly be doing our children a disservice or decreasing their career opportunities by limiting the amount of time they spend playing video games?

Other evidence is also promising regarding the lack of negative impact on the video game industry.  The Economist article reported a study indicating that violent crimes have dropped in the past five years in America, Great Britain, and Japan.  These three countries had the three largest markets in the world for video game sales during the time the study was conducted.  Chris Ferguson, a Texas A & M researcher, reported in 2007 that a meta-analysis of available studies at that time indicated no evidence of increased violence in gamers.  Perhaps the concerns in David Sudnow’s (1983) article, “Pilgrim in the Microworld,” in which he noted obsession with the video game Breakout, as well as the media hoopla after Columbine, were not founded in real scientific evidence.

In spite of these increasing positive reports, we as parents have tremendous decisions to make, and there is concern that, even if the games do not breed violence, or no longer appear to be breeding violence, there must be some limit to the amount of time that our kids should spend on the games.  China and South Korea are in the process of providing guidelines and/or legislation regarding the number of hours youngsters can play online games, in spite of the fact that there is no evidence that the games create physical dependence, any more than gambling, sports fanaticism, and related obsessions, again according to the article in the December, 2011, edition of The Economist.  In general, we hope that judgment and parental controls can be sufficient to curb whatever negative repercussions are noted from playing video games in this country.

Two areas of psychological research and theory are of critical importance here: addiction and mood disorders.  To the extent that your child becomes preoccupied with the games, has seemingly uncontrollable urges to play when their attention should be on other topics, such as school, spends more and more time doing nothing but playing the games in order to get satisfaction from them, that is, the behavior is comparable to an alcoholic or drug addict’s having increased tolerance for their substance of choice, and refuses school or stops doing homework, then a very maladaptive habit, if not an addiction, could be in the making, and you should seek professional help.  If playing the game seems to be the only source of pleasure in the child’s life, then you also may be dealing with a mood disorder, such as depression.  In depression, the child loses interest in activities that used to be pleasurable, paints almost every circumstance with a black brush, and has a very hard time being positive.  It is sometimes hard to separate these traits or symptoms from adolescence itself, but social withdrawal and sleep disturbance should be cause for having a therapist assess your child for either depression or video game fixation. One of my former clients informed me that he only felt powerful and in control of his life while playing video games subsequent to his parents’ divorce.  He became very withdrawn and isolative, stopped going to school, and eventually stopped almost all activity other than playing the games.  His parents considered sending him to residential treatment, but he eventually came out of his shell, finished school, and began college.  It has been very enlightening for me to see this young man at various stages of this obsession and/or video addiction and, for lack of a better word, recovery.  It is obvious that this young man’s difficulties went far beyond those of most adolescents who are enthralled with gaming.

It bears noting that the brains of young people are also undergoing tremendous growth and change during adolescence, and there is a need for a variety of types of stimulation and nutrition in order to promote optimal brain development.  An excellent resource for more on the effects of video games, energy drinks, the impact of domestic violence, and other issues about brain development in adolescents is www.instituteforsafefamilies.org. The reader will find dozens of excellent suggestions and interventions for parents on this website.

If you know your child has a problem, there are also rehabilitation centers and programs now that specialize in addressing video game addiction and helping the adolescent or adult to break this addiction and lead a more fulfilling life.  Entering ‘video game addiction treatment’ into your web browser will open up numerous options of this type, which is somewhat amazing.

Finally, as we at Parenting Today always attempt to say in our columns, there is no substitute for parental involvement, family discussions, and communicating with your children and their friends about these issues.  Whatever the ultimate outcome of the current research, we must deal with our children as individuals, not as collective groups in a research study. We are most definitely on the frontier of a new and exciting age where information is easily accessible, and answers to many of our current problems will seem obvious once they have been found.  Perhaps the next popular video game will be “Fix It,” and will present answers to various life and social problems to be solved, much as the University of Washington study asked for help with the structure of proteins.  Whatever assails us in the future, we will know there will ultimately be an app for it, and we will download it immediately!

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