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Video Games: Addiction, Obsession or a Bad Habit?
April 11th, 2019

Amongst parents I work with, one of the most consistent complaints and concerns revolve around screen time, video games and the battle over the cellphone. Like much that technology has to offer, there are benefits and consequences of progress. I compare it to nuclear power—which, when used properly, can light up a city, and when used inappropriately, can blow up a city.

The power of the smartphone is astounding. It seems hard to believe, but the handheld device our children have today is more powerful than all of NASA’s combined computing power in 1969 when they put a man on the moon. What is it that is so appealing, and hooks children’s attention? I am most struck by the appeal to any age child. Even a 5-month-old infant is instantly drawn to a screen, and is fascinated to manipulate it. Whether intentional or not, the developers have created a crisis for countless children and families.

One level of appeal is certainly neurological. As other columns have pointed out, the brain develops in a pattern that during the teenage years, high energy, low effort activities are neurologically appealing. Engaging in such activities is pleasurable, and is accompanied by neurotransmitter release of dopamine, the “pleasure hormone” in the brain. Teens, as well as adults, seek out this pleasurable feeling in their activities, though adults have developed more logic and judgment to mediate the desires. For many teens, the pleasure they feel engaging in screen time and video games cannot be matched by most other activities, and with this reinforcement, they continue to seek it out.

Another factor is that gaming and screen time is never ending, and insatiable, unlike many other activities which have a beginning, middle and finally a closure. As a simple example, eating a delicious piece of cake produces a dopamine pleasure experience, but when the cake is finished, the experience is finished. This is never the case with video gaming, and the opportunity for reinforcement is always there. As Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse states, “pulling the plug in the middle of a video game is a bit like yanking a half-eaten doughnut out of someone’s hand”, leading to the resistance parents experience.

While there may be some controversy as to whether or not video games can lead to a true addiction (it is not an official psychological disorder), there is no doubt that children become obsessed with their screen time and battle any attempt to curb it. There is also no doubt that too much screen time has negative consequences. Here are some of the concerning signs a parent should look for:

  • More than the number of hours one plays, it is more important to examine how gaming is interfering with social relationships, school performance, mood and “normal” development of usual skills.
  • Does the child sacrifice activities, such as sports, clubs, etc. to play computer games? If he or she continues to spend time in spite of negative consequences, there is a problem.
  • Effects on grades is always a significant sign of a problem. I have worked with students who have been admitted to top universities, who then spend all their time gaming and have to leave school.
  • Excessive screen time may be a coping mechanism for dealing with depression, anxiety or low self-esteem.
  • Too much time in front of a screen leads to a sedentary lifestyle and increases health concerns including weight gain.
  • Concentration and attention can be affected, and children who spend too much time on video games can become less interested in reading.
  • Many of today’s video games are focused on violence and aggression, and there is belief that engaging in these games increases aggressive tendencies.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has guidelines on screen time for children, which includes

  • No hand held devices or video games until 13 years old.
  • Introduce cell phones, iPads, etc. at 13, allowing up to two hours a day of use, and 30 minutes a day of nonviolent video games.

I would recommend the following for dealing with excessive video game and screen time

  • Familiarize yourself with the expert guidelines. While they may seem extreme, they are enforceable if you are consistent and start early.
  • Avoid the temptation to use screen time as an “electronic babysitter.” Yes, your child will be quiet, and well behaved, and you will be able to get things done, but you may be developing a pattern you will not be able to break.
  • Have clear and consistent boundaries about game play, and make sure both parents are on the same page and enforcing the limits.
  • The earlier in life you are clear and setting rules, the more likely your children will comply. Having said that, it is never too late to implement strong guidelines—just be prepared for a bit of a battle.
  • If your child continues to use despite significant negative consequences, consider seeking out professional help from a mental health professional who specializes in teens and understands addiction.

Remember, if you have issues you would like to see addressed, please email me at askdrgelbart@gmail.com.

Moe Gelbart, Ph.D. 
Executive Director, Thelma McMillen Center