A new study from the National Institute on Media and the Family reports that 8% of video game players show signs of ‘pathological addiction’ to gaming. The author, Douglas Gentile, surveyed 1,178 randomly selected kids in the US between the ages of 8 and 18. The survey asked questions about game-playing habits and about school performance. It also asked about social problems at home and school. To determine if the kids showed signs of addiction they used the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) definition of gambling addiction (since there is no such thing as video game addiction in the DSM). If a kid showed at least 6 out of 11 signs, they were classified as ‘pathological gamers’. The kids in this group had poorer school performance and attention problems.
Studies like this tend to pop up from time to time, but they all have a few things in common that I think make them problematic. One is the way they are treated in mainstream media. I get the impression that a lot of news outlets like to blow these stories out of proportion in order to make attention-grabbing headlines. For instance, most of the news stories I read about the study (like this one from Reuters, and this one from the Times Online) reported that 10% of kids are addicted to gaming. That’s some pretty serious rounding. Also, the study says that 8% of the survey respondents who played video games showed signs of addiction, but some of the news stories make it sound like 8% (or 10%) of all US children are video game addicts.
I also question some of the criteria the authors used to define addiction. This is from the Times article, for instance: ‘The most common symptom was children skipping household chores to play games.’ If that’s a sign of video game addiction, then I have been a hopeless junkie for more than 20 years. While I’m at it I should probably sign up for TV Watchers Anonymous and check into the LEGO wing of the Betty Ford Clinic. I can’t think of anything I like doing less than household chores; I believe that’s why they call them ‘chores’.
The biggest problem with this study and others like it is that they have only found a correlation, and as any good scientist will tell you: correlation does not mean causation. In other words, just because two variables (i.e., time playing video games and poor school performance) tend to go up and down together that does not mean that one causes the other. The authors of the study are quick to point out this caveat, but the implied conclusion (certainly the conclusion that the mainstream media seems to want us to draw) is that these kids were just fine before they got hooked on video games and that they would become straight A students if their games were taken away. It is entirely possible, however, that the trouble these kids are having in school and at home have nothing to do with video games. Maybe they are drawn to video games as an escape from their troubles. The best way to test this would be to take some of the ‘addicted’ kids and cut them off from video games entirely for a few months and see if their school performance improves. My personal theory is that, for some of these kids, video games actually have a therapeutic effect that helps alleviate the stress from whatever is actually causing their problems. If that is the case, some kids may actually get worse without video games.
I should point out that I don’t deny that video game addiction exists. The study mentions some kids that neglect hygiene and even food to play games and there are even tragic reports of deaths associated with excessive video game playing. However, these kinds of studies and the media coverage around them tend to exaggerate the problem. I think that in most cases, a mixture of common sense and discipline are enough to teach kids healthy game-playing habits. My son is only two, but we already limit his gaming time (ok PBSkids.org is no World of Warcraft, but still) in the hopes that he will learn that there is a time to enjoy video games and a time to enjoy the rest of the world.
Actually, the idea of video game addiction makes sense given what we know about the brain. Most drugs of abuse (cocaine and amphetamine for example) have their effect by either directly or indirectly increasing the amount of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain. One of the targets of dopamine is a region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. This region is one of several ‘pleasure centers’ in the brain, so called because electrical or chemical stimulation in this area causes an animal to repeat whatever behavior caused the initial stimulation. In other words, it seems to convey some sort of reward signal. The best kind of rewarding stimuli that activate the nucleus accumbens are ones that are novel or unpredictable. There are lots of reasons why games are fun, but if you think about most of the games you enjoy playing, a big part of the excitement is the novel and unpredictable rewards: unlocking new levels, finding cool power-ups, etc. That’s probably why most games are less fun after the first play-through. This ability was probably a very useful adaptation at some point in human evolution. If you are drawn to novel stimuli, you might be more likely to find new sources of food or shelter. However, many adaptations that were useful to our ancient ancestors are no longer necessary in modern western culture where food and shelter are not as difficult to come by. In these cases, a useful adaptation may become a debilitating pathology.
(Photo from Smarter.com)
(Post by new GeekDad Brent Richards)