Many parents grew up playing video games. Some of us were kids when video games were coming into fashion, and we remember throwing quarters into a Pac-Man machine. Or getting a Nintendo Entertainment System, Sega Genesis, or PlayStation. We logged many hours on those machines, but it probably wasn’t quite a video game addiction. We still rode our bikes and played with our friends outside in those days. No one talked about things like screen time or apps. Video game addiction wasn’t quite a thing then, but it is now.
Many addictions exist, but we often think of drugs, alcohol, nicotine, and gambling. Those vices all have a negative connotation. But what about activities that are more fun and sometimes child-centered? Can you get addicted to that kind of stuff? You don’t often hear about people becoming addicted to playing games like Monopoly or chess. Yet video game addiction is real, and, for some kids, it can cause a host of troubles.4
Warning Signs of Video Game Addiction
In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially included internet gaming disorder (ICD) in the International Classification of Diseases, 11th Edition. WHO noted that a video game addiction causes impairment in personal, family, social, educational, and occupational functioning.2
Note: It’s important to understand that anything can become addictive, but an internet or gaming addiction isn’t consistent or universal.4 So, for brevity and clarity, I will be using the term “video game addiction” to indicate excessive and problematic gaming behavior.4
Like any addiction, a video game addiction affects a person’s everyday life. While we often associate the word “addiction” with adults, a child can also develop an addiction to video games or internet gaming. Dr. Gregory Cejas, a Washington University psychiatrist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, tells Baby Chick it is essential to understand that most kids and teens will not develop a video game addiction, but if they do, it could be severe.
“True gaming addiction should look similar to addiction you might see with substance use or gambling. Your child may spend increasing amounts of time playing at the detriment of other hobbies, or they may have a hard time cutting back their playing time or quitting entirely,” he says. “Most importantly, their gaming will cause them tangible problems in their life. Like worse grades, diminished relationships with family or peers, or worse mental or physical health. And they still won’t want to or be able to make a change in their habits.”
Physical Consequences of Excessive Gaming
Spending too much time playing video games can be dangerous and could lead to more significant health problems. WHO noted those with a video game addiction often have health concerns due to a lack of physical activity, poor diet, and problems with eyesight and hearing.3,4
Children with a video game addiction might have trouble sleeping, become irritable, or become obsessed with playing games at every opportunity they get.4 Video game addiction could also interfere with self-care habits like showering or wearing clean clothes. It can also cause relationship issues and affect schoolwork.5
Cejas explains that health professionals are beginning to understand the long-term effects of too much gaming. Some studies show an increase in depression and ADHD in some kids. However, he says it is unclear how the two are associated or if they contribute to each other.
“We’re still in the very early days of learning about this. With more time playing video games comes less physical activity or personal hygiene, which can lead to other health problems. So, if you’re seeing more problems in these areas, in addition to dropping grades or changes in real-life friendships, you may want to start checking in on your child’s gaming,” Cejas says.
How Do Children Develop Video Game Addiction?
While experts say developing an actual addiction is rare, it isn’t always difficult for those susceptible to it. Impulsivity, low self-control, and anxiety can all contribute to addiction. The games themselves are easily accessible and often very enjoyable. Researchers say that playing and winning video games may contribute to a release of dopamine, giving us pleasure.1 Video games are gripping — when you receive an in-game reward, level up, complete an objective, or beat a hard level, your brain rewards you by releasing dopamine. This flood reinforces our behavior; we want to experience that nice feeling again . . . so we keep playing!6
“Games today make it very easy to develop regular, and at times problematic, use. Players are incentivized to play as much as possible for as long as possible, typically through positive reinforcement; you’re rewarded for hitting level 2 with a new perk for the game — a new character costume, weapon, or skill — but a bigger and better reward is given at level 3, 4, and beyond,” Cejas says. “Meanwhile, you often have to play longer to advance to each subsequent level unless you’re willing to pay additional money as a shortcut. For most gamers, this is an unwelcome frustration that may lead to them spending more time than they’d like, but they’re otherwise able to put down the phone or controller and do what they need to do in life without much issue. It’s when the other areas of their life start to suffer that it becomes a larger concern.”
How To Prevent and Remedy Video Game Addiction
The best thing parents can do to help their children manage their video game usage is to be aware of what they are doing. It isn’t always easy, particularly as they get older. But knowing what our kids are playing and who they are playing with is a start. Here are some practical steps you can take:
Learn About Their Gaming
“The best thing a parent can do is to be curious about the media that their children are consuming. Not judgmental or condemning, but curious. Ask your kids about what they’re playing. What do they like about it? What’s the goal of the game? Do their friends play? Sit down and watch them play and ask questions about what you’re seeing as it comes up,” Cejas says. “Your child will be more open to your thoughts on their gaming if they feel like you understand why it’s important to them. Plus, you’ve now learned about what parts of the game might lead to problems later, like downloadable perks and possibly habit-forming, in-game rewards.”
Create a Gaming Schedule
He also suggests that parents and children work together on a schedule or limits for video game play. Cejas encourages parents to get their child’s input when creating a plan and schedule. Children may be more likely to stick to the rules if they can be part of the process.
“If you’re concerned that your child has an addiction, consult your pediatrician, who can help guide treatment strategies. There have been some studies that suggest that cognitive behavioral therapy techniques can be useful for symptoms of this kind of problem behavior, though we’re still too early to know to what degree,” Cejas says. He also says that parents should try to be loving and empathetic in the rare case their child has developed a video game addiction.
If parents are willing to start from a place of humility and understanding, they will give themselves the best chance to teach their children how to develop healthy gaming habits that will last well into their adult years.