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Video Game Addiction - Recent Findings to Blow Your Mind

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By Cathy Cassata

04/29/14

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Symptoms of Video Game Addiction - What are the warning signs?

Cash says parents should be concerned when a child:

  • Isn’t respecting boundaries around video games or won’t accept and walk away from the game when a parent says it’s time to stop
  • Is lying and being deceptive in order to find ways to play video games
  • Has lost interest in things that were interesting in the past, such as playing with friends, engaging in sports and other hobbies
  • Used to get good grades, but suddenly starts getting lower grades
  • Is chronically tired from sleep being disrupted 
  • Allows the video game playing to get in the way of eating

 

What is too much?

Cash says less playing time is better and recommends setting limits. “In early elementary school, maybe no more than half an hour. In later elementary years, maybe up to an hour. In junior high, maybe up to two hours. In senior high, maybe up to three hours,” she says. “This is only if kids show maturity and responsibility about it, and they’re not fighting about it with their parents,” she said. 

Rich suggests a slightly different approach. “Limiting playing time should happen if a child is disabled by their play, in the sense that they are dropping out of their normal life and video game play displaces a rich, diverse set of experiences. It’s not necessarily a factor of time in the sense that if they go over X number of hours, it’s a problem,” he stated. He says it’s more about how the play fits into a child’s day. Starting with kids as young as 5, he suggests planning their 24 hours of the day with activities they need and activities they enjoy. “You can say to them, ‘you need this many hours of sleep, this many hours of school, this much time for homework, this much time for meals, this much time for basketball practice, and let’s see what’s left over at the end of the day for video games and TV,’” he explained. He says presenting it to kids this way helps them prioritize what’s important to them instead of having video games be so special that they need to be restricted. He also says this approach teaches kids time management skills and to take ownership of their play time. “You’re helping them learn some really valuable skills while putting their media use and video game use in context of all their interests. Instead of parents shaming them and saying ‘Playing Call of Duty is going to make you stupid and evil,’ kids can realize ‘You know, I don’t like the fact that I haven’t been outside or seen my friends recently.’” 

If you’re looking for a way to limit gaming time that is more specific to your child’s development, Rich says consider your child’s attention span. While in general, the younger a child is, the shorter his or her attention span is, Rich says the way to recognize a child’s attention span is to watch them in free play. “When they’re very young, you can observe when they stop playing with blocks and pick up a book, then put the book down to do something else. You’ll notice rhythms and that kids have a very specific time frame in which they can stay on a single task. However, screen media disrupts that rhythm because it operates on a different time frame. Whether it’s watching TV or playing a game, the time structure is dictated by the program or game creators,” he explained. “What you want to do is allow a child to use screen media based on his or her natural rhythms not the time required for a TV program or video game level to be completed. If your kid has a 15-minute attention span, let him play for 15 minutes then try another activity, otherwise he will run the risk of getting sucked in and then will be very upset and cranky when he is stopped, whether it be minutes or hours later. It similar to sleep cycles in a very young child – try not to disrupt or interrupt a sleep cycle or an attention cycle.” 

What age should kids be allowed to play?

Cash used to recommend that children not play video games until 7 years-old, but now she says wait until they’re 13. “There are many complex things physically and socially that children need to learn how to do and they only learn how to do them by doing them. Video games, which are so mesmerizing, will keep kids locked on a screen rather than doing all these things,” she said. 

Rich says the age issue isn’t so much about video game addiction or pathological playing as it is about content. “Interactive screen media, such as video games and a lot of websites are arguably one of the best educational technologies we’ve developed in the sense that you can create virtual realities and set up conditions where the role of the player is to drive the narrative and in driving that narrative they will learn a set of actions,” he said. “Those actions can be good or detrimental. It could be basketball or it could be killing. Decision on when to start a child with video games is really more of when a child is at a developmental stage where they’re able to take optimal advantage of that learning environment and when they are ready to and need to learn the content.  For example, math games when kids are first learning arithmetic can be fun and challenging and help them learn to do practical math in that interactive environment,” he said.

A child’s ability to distinguish fantasy from reality is another factor, says Rich. “Kids can’t make this distinction until the age of about 8. This means until 8 years-old Wily Coyote getting squashed by an anvil is as real as a kid getting punched in a playground,” he said. “Young children are building their understanding of the world and of themselves and how they fit into this world all the time.”

Normalizing violence, encouraging bullying

Rich says addiction to video games isn’t the most prevalent issue for children playing video games. Since first person shooter video games are so popular, it is the effects on children of playing violent games that concern him. However, he explains that the relationship is not as simple as violent video games causing children to be violent. 

“A common belief about violence in media is that violent media causes violence in children, that they see violence in video games or movies and copycat it. They think of high profile incidents like Columbine where the kids played Doom and made violent videos before their tragic attack. Fortunately, school shootings are extraordinarily rare events but many kids are playing violent video games. It is difficult to prove a causal link with playing a video game or watching a movie,” he said. “The real concern is that violence in video games normalizes violence and makes it a more acceptable way of overcoming conflict, getting your way, and prevailing. Measurable changes are consistently found in young people who use violent media, including even mild mannered people. They get desensitized. Violence doesn’t bother them as much. Some kids feel more vulnerable, more fearful and anxious when they play because entertainment portrays the world as a mean, violent dog-eat-dog place where the most violent prevail. Interestingly, the least prevalent effect is that some kids, and we don’t know who they are in advance, become more aggressive in their thoughts and behaviors.”

Rich says these responses to violent media relate to the three components for bullying. “In order for bullying to occur, there has to be a bully, a victim and bystanders, people who don’t stand up for the victim, sometimes even cheer the bully on. “Look at how those three responses map onto the outcomes we consistently see from media violence,” he said. “The question isn’t so much ‘Does this video game make my child more violent?’ but ‘What are the changes occurring with my child from spending time [engaging with] this media?’ and ‘Are they changes I want to see in my child?’"

How is Video Game Addiction Treated?

When playing video games does become an addiction or interferes with a person’s ability to live a healthy life, treatment can help, says Cash. At reSTART, she treats young men 18 years and older and sees children on an out-patient basis. “In our retreat center, we start by getting them unplugged so in some ways it’s similar to getting someone away from a substance, but we realize that at some point in their lives they are going to have to be able to reintegrate computers in some way, unlike a substance,” she said.

In the first stage of treatment, the men are completely cut off from electronics. “They are getting good sleep, good nutrition, lots of exercise (we have a cross fit gym), and building the life skills that will support them living as independent adults. We teach them skills of emotion management, social skills, and practical skills,” she explained.

The men also receive counseling from outside groups who run psychoeducational sessions, as well as a 12-step group called Internet and Technology Addicts Anonymous. “Before the men can go into our second phase, they need to develop a good plan for future life balance with technology,” said Cash.

During the second phase of treatment, Cash says, “they’re living on their own with someone else in recovery, going back to work and school, and slowly reintroducing computers into their lives. Most of our clients arrive depressed and anxious, and, for most, these problems begin to dissipate over 45 to 90 days as their addicted brains pass through withdrawal, and return to more normal functioning.”

Watch a discussion on video game addiction from a gamer's perspective:

Cathy Cassata is a regular contributor to The Fix, based near Chicago. She last wrote about keeping kids off drugs and exercise addiction.

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