From online multiplayer games to classic 2D platformers, video games have been a top teen pastime for decades. Many involve critical thinking, reflexes, and hours of practice – not unlike playing an instrument or sport. Overcoming a virtual challenge can be just as thrilling as mastering Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 or scoring the winning field goal. But when does playtime become an addiction? Or, rather, can video games be addictive?
The Benefits of Video Gaming
At its core, video gaming aims to entertain and challenge, and perhaps even bring people together. Many friendships begin with a simple conversation about a video game. Schools have long used interactive games to teach math, phonetics, and other subjects in a fun and engaging way. Many gamers even earn a living by streaming live on sites like Twitch or uploading popular videos to YouTube. Like it or not, video games are here to stay.
The Dopamine Effect
It’s not hard to see the appeal in video gaming. Winning feels great, and the more effort required, the greater the feeling of reward. The thrill of defeating a boss or the sense of pride that comes with unlocking a rare item after hours of gameplay triggers the brain to release dopamine, the reward chemical. It’s the same chemical released when we perform well on an exam or finish a challenging workout. It’s also the same chemical released when drugs or other stimulants enter the body.
Research in the past decade estimates that 10 to 15 percent of video gamers display warning signs that fulfill the World Health Organization’s criteria for addiction. While video gaming may not be as addictive as heroin, for example, it can still have a powerful negative effect on life in the same way as addictions to shopping and gambling. It’s easy for teens to get hooked, and often difficult for parents to get through to them.
When Gaming Takes a Bad Turn
While researchers remain divided on whether video games can become addictive, there’s no doubt that excessive gaming can present harmful physical, mental, and social consequences to today’s teens.
Many include adult content, and game chats often contain foul language. These factors can have a negative influence on your teen’s behavior, and the act of gaming itself can take a great deal of time and attention from other obligations.
Below are a few warning signs that your teen might be spending too much time on video games:
- Reckless or unlawful behaviors such as shoplifting and vandalism; mature video games often glorify these and other harmful behaviors.
- Isolation from friends and family, or a sudden change in your teen’s social circle.
- Skipping meals and sleep to play video games.
- A decline in school performance or in extracurricular activities.
- Notices from your teen’s school for gaming during class hours.
- Stealing money to pay for video games.
If you suspect your teen has a gaming addiction, try to open the channel of communication. Talk about your concerns without confronting or threatening. Come up with a plan together on how your teen can cut back on video gaming. For example, limit it to a weekend activity, or offer additional gaming hours as an incentive for performing well at school.
If video gaming has led your teen to start using drugs or alcohol, specialized treatment may be required. Call us at 877-466-0620 to learn more about treatment options.
- Video Game Addiction–Is it Real?, Sara Bellum, Drugabuse.gov, 19 April 2014, http://teens.drugabuse.gov/blog/post/video-game-addiction-is-it-real; Video Game Addiction