The new study found that children who are more likely to become addicted to video games (which the researchers call “pathological” video gaming) are those who spend a lot of hours playing these games, have trouble fitting in with other kids and are more impulsive than children who aren’t addicted. Once addicted to video games, children were more likely to become depressed, anxious or have other social phobias. Not surprisingly, children who were hooked on video games also saw their school performance suffer.
“What we’ve known from other studies is that video gaming addiction looks similar to other addictions. But what wasn’t clear was what comes before what. Gaming might be a secondary problem. It might be that kids who are socially awkward, who aren’t doing well in school, get depressed and then lose themselves into games. We haven’t really known if gaming is important by itself, or what puts kids at risk for becoming addicted,” said Douglas A. Gentile, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University in Ames.
Not only did the study reveal risk factors for pathological gaming, “the real surprise came from looking at the outcomes, because we had assumed depression might be the real problem,” explained Gentile. “But we found that in kids who started gaming pathologically, depression and anxiety got worse. And, when they stopped gaming, the depression lifted. It may be that these disorders [co-exist], but games seem to make the problem worse.”
Results of the study were released online and will be published in the February issue of Pediatrics.
The study included 3,034 children and teens from Singapore; 743 were in 3rd grade, 711 in 4th grade, 916 in 7th grade and 664 in 8th grade. The children came from six primary schools and six secondary schools. Five of the schools participating were all-boys’ schools. Almost 2,200 of the study participants were male.
The children — although not their parents or teachers — were surveyed annually from 2007 through 2009.
Eighty-three percent of the study volunteers reported playing video games sometimes, and another 10 percent said they had played video games in the past. The average time spent playing video games was around 20.5 to 22.5 hours a week.
But, Gentile pointed out, “A lot of video gaming isn’t the same as an addiction. Some kids can play a lot without having an effect on their lives. It’s when you see other areas of your child’s life suffer that it may be addiction. Parents might notice that a child doesn’t have the same friends any more, or that he’s just sitting in his room playing video games all the time. Or, there might be a drop in school performance,” he said.
In this study about 9 percent of the children surveyed qualified as being pathological video gamers, and Gentile said that number is fairly consistent with the U.S. population’s rate of pathological gaming.
Playing video games more than 30 hours a week, lack of social competence, less-than-average empathy and greater impulsivity all contributed to the addiction, the researchers found.
Gentile said the researchers aren’t sure how gaming is contributing to depression, anxiety and other social phobias, but in this study, “the gaming precedes the depression. We don’t know if it’s truly causal, but gaming has an effect on its own, and you can’t just ignore gaming and treat depression,” he said.
Although pathological video gaming appears to share a number of characteristics with other addictive behaviors, such as pathological gambling, the researchers noted that “pathological gaming” is not yet an established psychological disorder.
“Getting highly involved with video games can become addicting, and parents need to be cautious about how many hours kids play,” said Dr. Richard Gallagher, director of the Parenting Institute at the New York University Child Study Center in New York City.
“In this study, it looks like kids with less than 19 hours a week didn’t get involved in pathological gaming, so no more than two hours a day,” he suggested.
But Gallagher also emphasized that time spent playing is less important than the effect that gaming is having on your child. “If they’re attracted to games so much so that they don’t get involved in other things, or they talk about gaming and don’t talk about anything else, there may be a problem,” he said.
Both Gallagher and Gentile said the finding that video games can lead to poorer school performance is likely due to the time spent gaming. “Gaming is taking away time that could be spent on activities that have educational benefit,” Gentile said.
Gentile also recommends no more than two hours a day of “screen time,” in line with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines. And, screen time includes TV, computer, video games and even the newest music players and smart phones that have computer-like capabilities.