Study Documents Prevalence of Pathological Behavior among Young Video Gamers

By Hugh C. McBride

Many enthusiasts mistakenly employ the term “addiction” when discussing their passion for a certain object, activity, or event. Sports fans say they are addicted to their favorite game or team, gourmets claim to be addicted to fine food, and music lovers proclaim addiction to a certain band or genre.

In most cases, people who make these assertions are merely trying to emphasize the extent of their extreme (but ultimately not unhealthy) enthusiasm. But a recent study has added scientific support to claims of addiction among one notoriously dedicated group: Young video game players may actually suffer from video game addiction.

As reported in the May 2009 edition of the journal Psychological Science, a study by Iowa State University Assistant Professor of Psychology Douglas Gentile has revealed that more than 8 percent of gamers between the ages of 8 and 18 exhibit symptoms of video game addiction (or what he terms "pathological behavior").

"Although the general public uses the word 'addiction,' clinicians often report [the behavior] as pathological use," Gentile said in an April 21 article on the ScienceDaily website. "What we mean by pathological use is that something someone is doing -- in this case, playing video games -- is damaging to their functioning. It's not simply doing it a lot."

About the Study

Prof. Gentile reached his conclusions about the prevalence of video game addiction after analyzing data that had been collected during a 2007 survey of 1,178 American young people (boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 18).

In an April 21 article on the TimesOnline website, technology correspondent Mike Harvey reported that Prof. Gentile's research had yielded the following statistics:

  • Just under 90 percent of survey respondents reported playing video games.
  • The average boy in the survey spent 16.4 hours a week playing games, while the average for girls was just over nine hours every week.
  • The average "addicted" gamer played 24 hours a week -- twice as much as casual gamers.
  • 8.5 percent of the young gamers exhibited "pathological patterns of play," which was described as the presence of at least six of the 11 clinical symptoms (as defined by the American Psychiatric Association).
  • One-fourth of the surveyed gamers reported turning to video games in an attempt to escape problems, and nearly as many said they played instead of doing homework.
  • Twenty percent of the young video game enthusiasts said that their schoolwork had suffered because of the time they spent playing the games.

ScienceDaily noted that the young people whose behavior rose to the level of video game addiction were more likely than were non-pathological players to report the following:

  • Having game systems in their bedrooms
  • Receiving poor grades in school
  • Feeling "addicted" to game systems
  • Experiencing a higher than normal number of health problems
  • Stealing to support their video game habit

"While the medical community currently does not recognize video game addiction as a mental disorder, hopefully this study will be one of many that allow us to have an educated conversation on the positive and negative effects of video games," Prof. Gentile said in the TimesOnline article.

Are Video Games Really Addictive?

Though Prof. Gentile's conclusions about the prevalence of video game addiction have garnered a considerable amount of publicity, he is far from the first person to posit that the lure of video games may cross the line from attraction to addiction. For example, in July 2006, WebMD writer Amy Clark reported that an addiction treatment center in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, was treating teens and young adults for video game addiction.

"Research suggests gambling elevates dopamine," Kimberly Young, author of Caught in the Net: How to Recognize the Signs of Internet Addiction, said in Clark's article. "Even with alcohol, it's not just physical. There's a psychological component to the addiction, knowing 'I can escape or feel good about my life.'"

Though video game addiction has not yet achieved "official" status (indicated by inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-IV), commonly accepted symptoms of video game addiction and other types of pathological behavior (such as sex addiction and compulsive gambling) include the following:

Preoccupation -- The person focuses on the behavior when not engaging in it, to the degree that it distracts attention from matters related to family, work, school, and other important issues.

Tolerance -- Similar to the tolerance that drug addicts develop, individuals who are in the grip of a pathological behavior (such as compulsive gambling) need to engage in increasingly large amounts of the behavior in order to experience the same "rush."

Loss of Control -- Even if the person wants to end or curtail the behavior, he finds that he is unable to do so.

Withdrawal -- When the person is unable to participate in the behavior (for example, not being able to play video games because the console is broken), she experiences symptoms such as anxiety, restlessness, or irritability.

Escape -- In addition (or in place of) the pleasure that results from the behavior, the person gambles, plays video games, has sex, or engages in other types of pathological behavior as a means of escaping pressure or stress.

Dishonesty -- People who cannot resist a pathological behavior often find themselves lying to friends, family members, colleagues, and others (even counselors and doctors) about the degree to which the behavior has taken over their lives.

Crime -- As is also often the case with alcoholics and drug addicts, individuals who are consumed by a pathological behavior such as video game addiction may turn to crime (most commonly fraud or theft) in order to finance the continuation of their habit.

Social , Academic, and Professional Harm -- When people are addicted to a drug or consumed by a pathological behavior, their actions will continue even at the expense of personal relationships, academic performance, or professional advancement.

The Industry Responds

As would be expected of representatives of a multi-billion dollar industry, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) did not necessarily embrace Prof. Gentile's conclusions about video game addiction. In a letter to Dr. Robert Kail, editor of Psychological Science, ESA CEO Michael Gallagher took exception to the methodology that led to Prof. Gentile's results.

"As you are likely aware, such a sample is not truly representative of a national population group," Gallagher wrote in his letter. "Thus the results cannot be projected onto the broader population of children in this country. And the sampling error of plus or minus three percent that Dr. Gentile cited in the study is also meaningless."

In addition to disputing the sampling error, Gallagher also argued that the pool from which the data were collected did not represent a true random sampling, because the subjects of the 2007 survey were invited to participate in an "opt in" online experience.

The National Institute on Media and the Family (NIMF), which released Prof. Gentile's study, responded to the ESA concerns by emphasizing that the true value of the study lies not in exact numbers, but rather in the revelation that extensive video game use (and potential video game addiction) is having a negative impact on large numbers of American youth.

"Everyone knows at least one child who has struggled with balancing healthy game playing with academics and family life. Unfortunately, as Dr. Gentile’s study suggests, some children have more significant problems with gaming," the NIMF said in a press release. "Regardless of whether you agree with the exact statistics in Dr. Gentile’s study, it provides the gaming industry, medical experts, and public policymakers with a new opportunity to have a thoughtful conversation regarding the effects of video games on kids."

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