Research on the Effects of Media

© 2008-2011 Douglas A. Gentile; All Rights Reserved

Douglas A. Gentile, Ph.D.

The Issue


Video games, computers, and the Internet are regular parts of our daily lives. For most people, computer and video game use is integrated into their lives in a balanced and healthy manner. For others, time spent on the computer or video game is out of balance, and causes disruptions to work, school, friends, and family.


But is this really an addiction?


Computer and Video Game “Addiction”

I began studying this issue in 1999 because I was highly skeptical of people using the term "addiction" to talk about computer or game use.  I felt that parents only meant "My kid plays a lot, and I don't understand why." Spending a lot of time doing something is not a proper way to diagnose an addiction.  For example, many people drink alcohol a lot but are not addicted to it.


To be an addiction means that addicts do something in such a way that it damages their ability to function in life. It also means that they must damage their functioning in multiple areas of their lives, not just one or two.  They need to be damaging their social functioning, their occupational functioning, their family functioning, their school functioning, and/or their psychological or emotional functioning.   Sadly, even when we take this conservative approach to defining it, it turns out that 8.5% of American youth gamers would classify as pathological or "addicted" (Gentile, 2009).  Interestingly, this percentage seems to be about the same in the US as in many other countries where it has been studied, including 10.3% in China (Peng & Li, 2009), 8.0% in Australia (Porter, Starcevic, Berle, & Fenech, 2010), 11.9% in Germany (Grüsser, Thalemann, & Griffiths, 2007), 8.7% in Singapore (Choo, Gentile, Sim, Li, Khoo, & Liau, 2010), and 7.5% in Taiwan (Ko, Yen, Yen, Lin, & Yang, 2007).


One recent study followed over 3000 children for three years, and we found some surprising results.  





What are the warning signs?


There is (as of yet) no agreed-upon set of symptoms or risk factors, because the research has not yet identified them clearly.  I therefore offer these symptoms as a general guide.


Symptoms of computer or video game addiction:


    For children:



For adults:



There are even physical symptoms that may point to addiction:



For the computer or video game addicted person, a fantasy world on-line or in a game has partially replaced his or her real world. The virtual reality of the computer or game is more inviting than the every day world of family, school or work. With the increased access to pornography on the Internet and in games, this fantasy world may be highly sexual.


What is the theory?


There are many different approaches to defining addictions. Nonetheless, they tend to share many characteristics.  Brown (1991) summarized six core facets for the presence of addiction, and these are often similar across different approaches.  Brown's facets are salience (the activity dominates the person’s life, either cognitively or behaviorally), euphoria/relief (the activity provides a ‘high’), tolerance (greater activity is needed to achieve the same ‘high’), withdrawal symptoms (the experience of unpleasant physical effects or negative emotions when unable to engage in the activity), conflict (the activity leads to conflict with others, work, or the self), and relapse and reinstatement (the activity is continued despite attempts to abstain from it).


Many researchers (myself included) have tended to define it based on the criteria that medical professionals use to diagnose gambling addiction (more properly called pathological gambling).  There is no agreed-upon standard approach for measuring it yet.  The scale that I currently use (although I am continuing to modify it based on new research) is:


1.During the past year, have you become more preoccupied with playing video games, studying video game playing, or planning the next opportunity to play?  (suggested response scale: Yes, No, Sometimes)

2.In the past year, do you need to spend more and more time and/or money on video games in order to achieve the desired excitement? (Y/N/S)

3.In the past year, have you sometimes tried to limit your own playing? (Y/N)  If yes, are you successful in limiting yourself? (Y/N/S)

4.In the past year, have you become restless or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop playing video games? (Y/N/S)

5.In the past year, have you played video games as a way of escaping from problems or bad feelings? (Y/N/S)

6.In the past year, have you ever lied to family or friends about how much you play video games? (Y/N/S)

7.In the past year, have you ever committed illegal/unsocial acts such as theft from family, friends, or elsewhere in order to get video games? (Y/N/S)

8.In the past year, have you ever neglected household chores to spend more time playing video games?

9.(For students) In the past year, have you ever done poorly on a school assignment or test because you spent too much time playing video games?  (For non-students) In the past year, has your work ever suffered (e.g., postponing things, not meeting deadlines, being too tired to function well, etc.) because you spent too much time playing video games?  (Y/N/S)

10.In the past year, have you ever needed friends or family to help you financially because you spent too much money on video game equipment, software, or game/Internet fees? (Y/N/S)


To score it, count a 'yes' as a 1, a 'no' as 0, and a 'sometimes' as .5 (with the exception of item 3, where you get a 1 only if you try to limit, but are not successful).  Someone would be considered a pathological (addicted) gamer if they score at least a 5 (see Gentile, 2009 for more details, and please cite this article if you wish to use the scale above).  This approach is based on the DSM-IV clinical approach to diagnosing mental health problems, and requiring that someone have at least five symptoms means that they are damaging multiple areas of their lives because of how they are gaming.  I am currently conducting some studies to see how this scale may be improved.


What kind of a disorder is this?  


My opinion is that it is an impulse-control disorder.  That is, the gamer knows he should do his homework, but he can't stop the impulse to keep playing....  This means that it's not something about the games that is "addictive," but instead that the person has allowed his/her computer or game habit to get out of balance with the rest of life.  


Why are games and the Internet so fascinating that they could be a problem?


One way to think about it is to understand what leads to intrinsic motivations.  One theory about human motivation is Self-Determination Theory, which argues that three basic needs lead to human motivation.  These needs are the need for autonomy (we want to feel like we are in charge of what we are doing), the need for relatedness (we want to feel connected to other people), and the need for competence (we want to feel like we are good at things).  The Internet and video games are excellent at satisfying these needs, and are therefore highly motivating.  Compare that with how people often feel about their school or work, and you can immediately see why people might let things get out of balance.


What can be done?


Because pathological gaming or Internet use are not yet recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as a medical disorder, very few therapists know about it or how to treat it.  I am not a clinical psychologist and cannot recommend a treatment plan.  I do believe, however, that it is possible to treat.  If you or a loved one is having problems keeping the computer or games in balance with the rest of daily life, I would recommend seeking a local counselor who has experience treating impulse control disorders, or perhaps one who has experience with chemical dependency disorders.  I would also recommend taking a copy of my paper along to the first meeting, as a way of helping the therapist to understand what the issue is that concerns you (I often hear from people saying that they have been told by a therapist that there it isn't a "real" issue, so you may need to help educate them about why they should take it seriously.)


You should recognize that trying to help your child may mean large changes to your family patterns.  The adults have probably gotten very used to having lots of free time because the kids entertain themselves with the games.  If you limit the games, you will need to replace them with something.   This means being actively involved with your child in a way you may not have had to in a long time.


One way to think about it is to consider what needs of theirs are being met by games?  Is it their sense of independence and autonomy?  Their social and belongingness needs?  Their sense of competence?  (It may be all three!)  If you take away the games, what will you give them to help them meet those needs elsewhere?


There are some places that claim to specialize in treatment for computer and game addiction.  I do not know any details about these places and am only providing links here for your information - I am not specifically recommending them as I do not know how effective their programs are.



Links to other resources,8599,1925468,00.html



Selected References


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Brody, Jane E. (2000, May 16). First step is recognizing the signs of Internet abuse. The New York Times, pD7(N), pF7(L).

Brown, R.I.F. (1991). Gaming, gambling and other addictive play. In J.H. Kerr & M.J. Apter (Eds.), Adult place: A reversal theory approach (pp. 101-118). Amsterdam: Swets & Zeitlinger.

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Choo, H., Gentile, D.A., Sim, T., Li, D., Khoo, A., & Liau, A.K. (2010).  Pathological video-gaming among Singaporean youth. Annals of the Academy of Medicine Singapore, 39, 822-829.  

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Hauge, M. R., Gentile, D. A., (2003, April). Video game addiction among adolescents: Associations with academic performance and aggression. Paper presented at a Society for Research in Child Development Conference, Tampa Florida.

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