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A teen struggles with video game addiction

Is Your Teenager Addicted to Video Games?

7 min.

The answer? Probably not, as it’s relatively uncommon.

By: Dr. Caroline Fenkel, DSW, LCSW

September 9, 2022


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Video games can be mind-blowingly engaging, particularly for teens and young adults. They’re also everywhere—including quite possibly on your child’s phone at this very moment.

In the first quarter of 2021, for example, Americans spent nearly $15 billion on the games, up 30% from 2020. It’s a trend that is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

All of which is a worry for parents. But it’s not all doom and gloom.

Defining video game addiction

This disorder was first included in the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD) in 2018. The WHO describes it as a disorder that results in “marked distress or significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, or occupational functioning.” To note, video game addiction is sometimes referred to as internet gaming disorder (IGD) or, more recently, digital media overuse (DMO). 

Another way to understand video game addiction is with questions like these: 

  • Does a person’s video gaming get in the way of other important parts of his life like school or relationships? 
  • Does a person feel like they have crossed the line from loving to play video games to having to play video games? 
  • Is a person resorting to obsessive video game playing to escape from other problems in their life?

The WHO has listed other health concerns often associated with the condition that include lack of physical activity, poor diet, hearing and eyesight problems, musculoskeletal issues, sleep deprivation, and poor psychosocial functioning.

Video game addiction statistics

In a recent study completed at Brigham Young University and published in Development Psychology, researchers spent six years following 385 adolescents as they grew into young adults in the longest study ever done on video game addiction. 

Each year, all study participants filled out extensive questionnaires measuring depression, anxiety, aggression, delinquency, empathy, prosocial behavior (voluntary behavior that benefits others), shyness, sensory reactivity, financial stress, and problematic cell phone use.

The findings were fascinating. Among them:

  • About 90% of the gamers in the study were not in any way addicted, though they played regularly. The not-so-good news? The other 10% were. They were playing in a harmful way that was causing negative consequences for their lives. Their play was characterized by: (1) excessive time spent on gaming, (2) difficulty stopping play, with (3) a clear and negative effect on their normal functioning. 
  • Compared to the group with healthier gaming habits, those with a more problematic relationship with video games showed higher levels of shyness, aggression, depression, and problematic cell phone use.
  • The two main predictors of video game addiction were: (1) being assigned male at birth and (2) having low levels of prosocial behavior. 
  • Note: Other studies that’s one have shown that young people and adults assigned male at birth are more likely to become addicted than those assigned
  • At the end of the study, when subjects were in their early 20s, the addicted gamers were as financially stable and successful in their careers as the non-addicted gamers. (So much for the slacker gamer living in his parent’s basement stereotype.)

Signs that your child may be developing a gaming addiction

Technically, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) doesn’t consider gaming addiction a psychiatric disorder, but the organization does provide an official scale for diagnosing it.

A diagnosis of internet gaming disorder requires experiencing five or more of these symptoms within the same year:

  • Preoccupation with gaming
  • Withdrawal symptoms (i.e. sadness, anxiety, irritability) when gaming is taken away or is not available
  • Higher tolerance built up over time i.e. more gaming is needed to satisfy the urge
  • Unsuccessful attempts to quit or reduce gaming
  • Loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyed before gaming
  • Continuing to game despite problems associated with it, such as a relationship ending or doing poorly in school
  • Deceiving family and friends about the amount of time spent gaming
  • The use of gaming to relieve negative emotions such as guilt or hopelessness
Teenager addicted to playing video games

Important caveat: Video games do have some benefits

As with alcohol, certain drugs, gambling, and sex, just because you can get addicted to video gaming doesn’t mean it’s intrinsically evil. That’s important for parents to hear, for this reason: Laying down the unbreakable rule the day your child turns 13 (or whenever) that there will be no video game playing ever is a strategy that is likely to fail spectacularly.

It’s usually best to take a more measured approach. For one thing, some video gaming can actually have positive benefits. As these studies show:

Video games can boost your child’s IQ

In a study published early in 2022, researchers at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute found that children who spent an above average time playing video games actually increased their intelligence (as measured by IQ tests) more than those who played an average amount (one hour) of video games each day.

Video game players may have enhanced brain activity and decision-making skill

In a 2022 Georgia State University study of 47 college-age subjects, frequent players of video games showed better sensorimotor decision-making skills and enhanced activity in key brain regions than did non-players. Sensorimotor skills are defined as the process of receiving sensory signals (sensory input) and producing a response (motor output), similar to hand-eye coordination. 

Based on the study results, the authors believe video games could be used as a training tool to improve perceptual decision-making.

The benefits of playing video games

That phrase was in fact the title of a research review that appeared in the American Psychologist journal in 2014. The authors looked at five years’ worth of studies that showed a number of positive effects from playing video games. They found those effects in four key domains: cognitive, motivational, emotional, and social.

Again, the point here is that there can be tangible, well-studied benefits to playing video games when done in moderation. The danger comes when the playing becomes obsessive.

3 ways to help prevent teen video game addiction

To help keep control over the time your teen spends gaming, try these proven strategies:

Set time limits

Discuss a daily time limit with your child, get buy-in, then stick to it. Don’t hesitate to check in with them occasionally to see how it’s going, but try not to do so in a disbelieving, exasperated, or accusatory manner. This time-limit strategy is more likely to work if you stay both positive and collaborative.

Suggest a bedroom “no-phone zone”

If we’re being realistic, asking your teen to keep their phone/laptop/video game out of the bedroom may meet resistance. If so, at least ask them to put their gadget(s) in a dresser drawer or on a desk that is away from the bed. They may even start to love the new strategy once they realize how much better they’re sleeping and how much more energy they have during the day.

Model and promote physical activity

If your child sees you getting out for that 30-minute walk every morning or evening, it can go a long way toward helping them be active as well (notably, without their smartphone). Seeing you making active, healthy decisions for yourself every day will make it feel like the norm for them as well. You might also create open-invite opportunities for activity with outings to the park, meals/gatherings in the backyard or nearby greenspace, weekend visits to the river trail, or family game nights with board games or cards.

Important note: We know teens and young adults living at home can be stubborn about how they spend their time. Never mind stubborn—often they just want to do their own thing. That’s fine, and that’s natural.

But remember, it’s your home and ultimately your rules, and it’s fine to occasionally use that leverage. Just try not to be too heavy-handed, arbitrary, or in-your-face about it. Stay firm, positive, and consistent. Keeping a sense of humor about it all helps a lot, too. If you can do all of that, at least most of the time, you may be surprised how okay your teen will be with your time limits and other house rules on video gaming.

Treatments that can help

Several modalities are proven to be effective in treating teen video game addiction, and every day we’re learning more about what works. Options include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), family therapy, and motivational interviewing. CBT is especially useful in treating addictive behaviors as it  may help young people view their thoughts about gaming with a more critical lens based in their emotions around gaming.. 

Support with Charlie Health

If you suspect your teen is headed toward trouble, or is already there, don’t hesitate to contact Charlie Health. Needing professional help is not a sign of weakness on the part of a parent or a teen—it’s a sign of courage and commitment to a better future. 

At Charlie Health, we have individualized treatment and programming for teens and young adults with gaming addictions. Our Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) combines supported groups, family therapy, and individual therapy for a holistic approach to healing.. We customize our treatment based on what works.

For more information, call Charlie Health today at 866-491-5916 or find us on social media @CharlieHealth.

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