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?
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.
- Of those who were pathological gamers at the start of the study, 84% of them still were pathological gamers 2 years later. This means that it isn’t just a phase children go through and get out of easily.
- When looking for risk factors predicting who would become a pathological gamer, we found that children who were more impulsive, had lower social competence, and spent more than the average amount of timing predicted who became pathological (or “addicted” if you prefer).
- When looking at outcomes, we were surprised to see that other psychiatric disorders such as depression, social phobias, and anxiety seemed to act as if they followed the gaming problems, rather than the other way around. That is, when children became pathological gamers, their depression, social phobias, anxiety, and grades got worse. When children stopped being pathological gamers, their depression, social phobias, and anxiety improved. Now we don’t know exactly what the causal processes are, but that probably isn’t the important issue. The important issue we can take away from this pattern is that gaming doesn’t seem to be simply a symptom of other problems, and therefore should not be ignored as if it is epiphenomenal. It is likely that pathological gaming is comorbid with other problems, where they can each reinforce each other in a downward spiral.
What are the warning signs?
There is (as of yet) no agreed-
Symptoms of computer or video game addiction:
- Most of non-
school hours are spent on the computer or playing video games.
- Not keeping up with assignments.
- Worsening grades.
- Lying about computer or video game use.
- Choosing to use the computer or play video games, rather than to see friends.
- Changing friends to only those who also game.
- Dropping out of other social groups (clubs or sports).
- Irritable when not playing a video game or on the computer.
- Falling asleep in school.
- Aggressive responding when you try to stop their play.
- Most of non-
- Computer or video game use is characterized by intense feelings of pleasure and guilt.
- Obsessing and preoccupied about being on the computer, even when not connected.
- Hours playing video games or on the computer increasing, seriously disrupting family, social or even work life.
- Lying about computer or video game use.
- Experience feelings of withdrawal, anger, or depression when not on the computer or involved with their video game.
- May incur large phone or credit bills for online services.
- Can’t control computer or video game use.
- Fantasy life on-
line replaces emotional life with partner.
There are even physical symptoms that may point to addiction:
- Sleep disturbances
- Back, neck aches
- Failure to eat regularly or neglect personal hygiene
For the computer or video game addicted person, a fantasy world on-
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-
The scale that I currently use (although I am continuing to modify it based on new research) is:
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
- In the past year, have you become restless or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop playing video games? (Y/N/S)
- In the past year, have you played video games as a way of escaping from problems or bad feelings? (Y/N/S)
- In the past year, have you ever lied to family or friends about how much you play video games? (Y/N/S)
- 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)
- In the past year, have you ever neglected household chores to spend more time playing video games?
- (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)
- 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-
What kind of a disorder is this?
My opinion is that it is an impulse-
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-
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 –
Links to other resources