Video Game Addiction Symptoms and Treatment

playing-video-gamesVideo games have captured the imagination of Americans since the 1970s, with the introduction of very simple games. Although the graphic features of these basic programs were primitive compared to today’s complex, multifaceted games, many children, teens, and adults quickly became enthralled with this new pastime. It soon became apparent that video games had the potential to consume a large amount of time as the players tried repeatedly to win. Today, video game addiction has been recognized as a process addiction similar to compulsive gambling, in which the rush of winning becomes one of the primary motivations for playing.

In the early days of video games, most games were available only on arcade machines, which were not accessible 24 hours a day. These days, games are one of the most popular features of social network sites, and they can be played almost continuously on handheld game devices, personal computers, or smart phones. Video games have become much more elaborate, with rich alternate worlds, multiple characters, and complicated storylines. Introverted children or teens may find that they can avoid interacting with “real”peers by engaging primarily with other online players, in the guise of characters with awe-inspiring gifts and powers.

When Gaming Becomes an Addiction

When Gaming Becomes an AddictionNot all researchers agree that video gaming is a harmful or addictive activity. Many people, including parents, believe that video games expand the imagination, give children the opportunity to work collaboratively, and sharpen cognitive skills. Yet when young people spend most of their time playing video games at the expense of schoolwork, physical exercise, family events, or social activities, the benefits of gaming seem less certain.

There is some controversy over whether video gaming is an addiction comparable to gambling, drug abuse, or alcoholism.

Psychology Today states that the comparison between video gaming and gambling is flawed, because there are no financial stakes or material losses involved with video games. Winning a video game requires cognitive skills and sharp reflexes, while winning at gambling is a matter of luck.

However, according to WebMD, video game addiction can be considered a type of impulse control disorder.

The source of the addictive quality of gaming is still unknown, but researchers propose that the process of playing and winning these games may trigger a release of dopamine, a brain chemical that elevates mood and provides a rush of energy. Dopamine is the same neurotransmitter involved in other addictive activities, such as alcohol or drug abuse.

Video game addiction is not currently recognized as an addictive disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the definitive guide to psychiatric illness. But an obsessive preoccupation with games at the expense of real-life activities or obligations shares some of the characteristics of addictive behavior. How can a parent tell when gaming has stopped being simple entertainment and become an addiction? Here are a few of the key warning signs to watch for:

  • Poor performance at school, work, or household responsibilities as a result of a preoccupation with gaming
  • Neglect of other hobbies or friendships
  • A decline in personal hygiene or grooming
  • Inability to set limits on how much time is spent gaming
  • Signs of irritability, anxiety, or anger when forced to stop gaming, even for brief periods of time
  • The need to spend more time playing games or to play more intensely in order to get the same level of enjoyment
  • Symptoms of physical or psychological withdrawal, such as loss of appetite, sleeplessness, agitation, or emotional outbursts if the game is taken away
  • Using video games as a way to escape stressful situations at work or school, or conflicts at home

Children and teenagers aren’t the only ones who can be vulnerable to video game addiction. Adults may also play video games for hours instead of engaging in work activities, pursuing hobbies, or devoting time to their partners or children. When adults are no longer able to control the amount of time they spend on video games, or when their jobs or relationships begin to suffer as a result of video gaming, they may have crossed the line from recreation to addiction.

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Popular Beliefs About Video Games

There are many misguided beliefs and misconceptions about video games. In some schools of thought, these computerized programs are entirely negative, promoting violence, sexism, and social isolation among young people. Other perspectives hold that video games can be a valuable tool for education and character development, allowing children to simulate the roles of powerful heroes. In reality, video games have both positive and negative characteristics, and the effect of playing games often depends on the player’s attitudes toward games and life in general.
Parenting Science proposes that the compelling quality of video games may not be due to an addictive response, but to a psychological phenomenon called “flow.” Flow takes place when individuals become so immersed in an activity that they lose track of time. Any engaging activity — even work or school projects — can induce a sense of flow once a person is caught up in the process. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with being immersed in an engaging, educational game, this process can turn into a compulsion if the user is unable to stop, and if it takes time away from other important activities or relationships.
Compulsive video gaming can have negative effects on a developing mind or body. Adult players, too, may suffer from the effects of hours spent sitting on the couch or at a computer desk. Listed below are a few of the key concerns for younger players:

  • Sedentary lifestyle: Hours spent sitting at a computer or in front of a device can take a toll on a young person’s body. The lack of physical exercise involved in video gaming has led to public health concerns about weight gain, poor posture, and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes in America’s children and teens.
  • Lack of social engagement: Although video games require engaging with others in computerized environments, they don’t necessarily prepare children for the realities of socializing with their peers. Learning how to interact with others in a real-world setting is an important social skill that may be neglected by individuals who spend too much time gaming.
  • Problems with concentration and attention: There is some concern that the rapid movements and fast-paced action of video games promote a loss of concentration in players. Children who spend a lot of time playing video games may become less interested in reading books, for example, which requires more focused, prolonged attention.
  • Avoidance of developmental tasks: Adolescence is a time of self-discovery and personal development. In order to become mature adults who can take on the challenges of life, teenagers must learn how to confront painful emotions and awkward social experiences. When used appropriately, fantasy roleplaying video games can help children learn and apply valuable character traits that may help them in their interactions with others. But when video gaming is used as an escape mechanism, it allows children to avoid the developmental challenges of growing up.
  • Increased aggression or violence: Children and teens who devote a lot of time to playing video games that focus on combat, fighting, or violence may display more signs of aggression than those who don’t play these games. Parents must be aware of the content of video games, which are subject to a rating system similar to the one applied to films. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) posts guidelines and ratings for popular games based on the age of the player, as well as educational resources for parents and parental game controls.
  • Seizures and repetitive stress injuries: The British Medical Journal (BMJ) published an article about the risks of video gaming for players who have epilepsy or other seizure disorders. The flickering graphics, lights, and colors of video game displays may trigger seizure activity in some players. There is also evidence that compulsive game playing may lead to repetitive stress injuries of the wrists or hands.
  • Video games have had a tremendous impact — both positive and negative — on the cultural attitudes, psychological development, and lifestyle choices of both children and adults. While these games can be viewed as a risk to players’ physical or emotional health, they have also been promoted as effective educational tools and have even been used for physical or cognitive rehabilitation in clinical settings. Yet for individuals who have become caught in a cycle of compulsive gaming, video games can become destructive.

    The growing popularity of video games has created a new awareness of the problem of compulsive gaming, which in turn has led to the development of treatment programs for this addictive process. Treatment for video game addiction focuses on behavioral modification therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), that guide the client away from the obsessive thought patterns and obsessive habits of addiction. Group therapy is a valuable source of motivation and moral support, especially for individuals who have lost contact with friends or peers as a result of their game addiction. Family or marriage counseling can help educate loved ones about the disorder and create a more stable home environment.

    Clients who are diagnosed with co-occurring depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or other psychiatric conditions may require medication therapy with antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs. If substance abuse is a factor, the client will need medical detox followed by specialized treatment for drug or alcohol abuse.

    Depending on the severity of the addictive behavior and the co-occurrence of other medical or psychiatric conditions, video game addiction may be treated on an inpatient or outpatient basis. Inpatient facilities offer 24-hour supervision in a supportive, structured environment, which may be beneficial for individuals who haven’t been able to control their video game use. Outpatient treatment, which includes intensive outpatient programs and partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), offers more flexibility for individuals who cannot enroll in inpatient treatment due to personal responsibilities or who are very motivated to recover from addictive behavior.

    Finding Help

    getting help from friends

    Compared to other addictive disorders, video game addiction may not seem very serious; however, the parents, partners, and children of people addicted to video games can testify to the negative effects of this behavior.

    Like other potentially positive activities, video games have their place in a healthy, well-rounded life, but when gaming begins to take precedence over school, work, or relationships, the individual needs professional help. While American Addiction Centers does not treat video game addictions, treatment programs are now available all over the country that address this new disorder and offer hope to people seeking freedom from compulsive gaming.

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