By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 20, 2009
A new study concludes that children can become addicted to playing video games, with some skimping on homework, lying about how much they play and struggling, without success, when they try to cut back.
In what is described as the first nationally representative study in the United States on the subject, researcher Douglas Gentile of Iowa State University found that 8.5 percent of American youths ages 8 to 18 who play video games show multiple signs of behavioral addiction.
"For some kids, they play in such a way that it becomes out of balance. And they're damaging other areas of their lives, and it isn't just one area, it's many areas," said Gentile, a psychologist and assistant professor whose study was posted online today by the journal Psychological Science.
To get at gaming addiction, Gentile adapted diagnostic criteria for pathological gambling into a series of questions about video game use. The questions became part of a 2007 Harris Poll survey of 1,178 children and teens. Gamers were deemed "pathological" if they reported at least six of the 11 symptoms.
Symptoms included spending increasing amounts of time and money on video games to feel the same level of excitement; irritability or restlessness when play is scaled back; escaping problems through play; skipping chores or homework to spend more time at the controller; lying about the length of playing time; and stealing games or money to play more.
Four times as many boys as girls were considered "pathological gamers."
Gentile said he started his research with doubts about the possibility of addiction. "I thought this was parental histrionics -- that kids are playing a lot and parents don't understand the motivation, so they label it an addiction," he said. "It turns out that I was wrong."
What he found, he said, was that children considered pathological gamers did worse in school, had trouble paying attention in class and reported feeling "addicted." They were twice as likely to report attention-deficit disorder or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
The study found that 88 percent of the nation's children ages 8 to 18 play video games. With 45 million children of that age in the country, the study would suggest that more than 3 million are addicted "or at least have problems of the magnitude" that call for help, Gentile said.
"It's not that the games are bad," said Gentile, who is also director of research at the nonprofit National Institute on Media and the Family. "It's not that the games are addictive. It's that some kids use them in a way that is out of balance and harms various other areas of their lives."
The study said that the findings leave many questions unresolved. The study could not say, for example, whether pathological game-playing caused poor school performance or whether "children who have trouble at school seek to play games to experience feelings of mastery."
Gentile also said the research did not indicate what the warning signs of addiction might be or how to best treat such a problem.
Even when the study accounted for hours of play, the gamers deemed addicted performed worse in school.
Other experts said that although they agree that too much video-gaming can take a toll, they are not convinced by the study's addiction findings.
"I think kids use this just the way kids watch television, the way kids now use their cellphones," said Michael Brody, chairman of the media committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. "They do it to relieve their anxiety and depression. It's all a matter of balance."
Mark Griffiths, director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom, contended that game addiction exists but in smaller numbers than the study suggests.
"In all honesty, if there really were 8.5 percent of children who were genuinely addicted, there would be treatment clinics all over America."
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that screen time, including television, computer and video games, not exceed one to two hours a day and that it be "quality programming."
Donald Shifrin, past chairman of the academy committee that examines media impact, said that "maybe this is an 'Aha!' moment for parents to say, 'We're going to look and see whether these games are being used in a balanced way.' "