I'm subscribed to all kinds of psychological newsletters. I absolutely love it because it's a way to stay up-to-date on all the newest information in the "psych world." Last week, a newsletter contained an article about Video Game Addiction. I was incredibly intrigued because this is a topic that has come up frequently among the therapists I supervise. They've all had families come into the therapy room because of teens who seem to be addicted to video games!
What about you? Do you ever feel concerned about your child and video games? What about your child and their use of electronics?
I have noticed an increase in children (even babies) being exposed to tablets and cellphones on a regular basis. More disturbing to me is the family that goes out to dinner and EVERYONE is using a phone, tablet, or those new Ziosks at the table.
Have you noticed that? Next time you go out to eat, take a moment to look around and notice. Better yet, next time you are at dinner, take a look and see what YOU and YOUR family are doing. I'd be willing to bet that at least one of you (if not all of you) are using electronics.
This article isn't to blame or shame you. We are all guilty of this behavior at least some of the time. I know I've been guilty of this too! That's why it's important to draw attention to it, so that we can be aware of our behavior and make efforts to change for the better.
What is Addiction?
Without going too far into the biology of addiction, let me explain how addiction works. Addiction has to do with a behavior (Ex: drinking) that increases dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that is responsible for feelings of happiness (or the high).
An addiction is formed when the person has to increase their engagement in the behavior (drinking) to get the same "high" (dopamine). This process is known as tolerance, where the brain recognizes it's getting too much dopamine, so it engages in a process to filter out how much it's getting. As such, the person increases their behavior to produce those higher levels of dopamine.
When that person isn't getting enough dopamine, they can experience withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms can cause the person to have a behavioral, emotional, or physical response to going without the dopamine. This might include irritability, vomiting, and depression, among other things.
Hopefully that all made sense and gives you an idea of how addictions are formed without getting too far into the physiology of it all. Now, let's look at how video gaming can become addictive.
What is Video Game Addiction?
At this point in time, the World Health Organization (WHO) has come to identify video game addiction as a real thing in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). They call it "Gaming Disorder," and describe it as “a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour, which may be online or offline, manifested by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”
There are many reasons why a person can become addicted to video games. Those reasons include:
Getting to be anyone you want to be- As a fictional character, you can be whatever you dream of. Games today allow you to change what you look like, age, gender, and so on. You can have friends who only know you as the character in the game and not in real life. (Think of the child who is bullied at school. In a video game, they can be popular and forget their real life as the lonely kid everyone makes fun of.) The gamer can also engage in behavior that they are curious about without the consequences in real life. For example, some video games allow stealing, murder, and even sex. This allows a gamer to experience these behaviors without real life consequences (like pregnancy or jail time).
Getting to escape from reality- Once again, you can enjoy an entire universe of the things you like. If you enjoy fantasy, you can "live" in a fantasy universe where you are the hero and the world depends on you! The same goes for army-style, sci-fi, and even gang-style life! If you can think of it, there's a game for it. This escape becomes even more addicting when your real life is filled with hardships. The game allows you to escape this reality and forget your troubles for a little while.
Daily rewards for playing- Many games are set up to reward you for logging into the game daily. For example, Pokemon Go rewards you with "streaks" if you capture just 1 pokemon each day. After you complete the "streak," you get a reward. So, not only are you rewarded for logging into the game, but you get rewarded for doing it multiple times in a row! This incentives people to go on daily to play.
Consequences for not playing- In many games, failure to go on daily causes you to lose your "streak," or lose resources (like coins) in the game. So, not only are you rewarded for playing daily, but you're punished if you don't.
Being rewarded for progress AND for achievement- Video games are set up where the character gains "experience points" for completing tasks. Something as simple as picking up an item in the game will grant experience points. Every point makes the character stronger, allowing them to achieve harder tasks that grant greater rewards. Individuals can watch their progress since most video games will display an "experience bar," where the number of experience points are displayed. Every time the individual gains more experience, the experience bar fills a little more, showing the gamer how close they are to the next level. And, of course, once you reach the next level, you are often given more rewards.
Getting to watch your character grow in this way serves as a reward. This means that the gamer is being rewarded for progress and not just achievement. In real life, experience also make us better at what we do, but we can't see it so tangibly. Furthermore, it often takes weeks and months of practice before we can really see our growth in any skill. This means that we don't necessarily feel rewarded for our progress. This brings us to our next point....