Study: One in 10 Young Gamers Could Become Pathological Addicts

Frantic parents concerned about their children’s digital habits have found a new ally in the form of a study by U.S., Hong Kong and Singapore researchers, published in the latest issue of the journal Pediatrics.

Roughly 10 percent of young video gamers suffer a pathological addiction to their games, the research team found.

“We aimed to measure the prevalence and length of the problem of pathological video gaming or Internet use, to identify risk and protective factors, and to identify outcomes for individuals who become or stop being pathological gamers,” explained study co-author Albert Liau, Ph.D., a psychology researcher at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

Video game addiction is similar to other addictive behaviors, the study found, “demonstrating that it can last for years and is not solely a symptom of co-morbid disorders,” explained Hong Kong Polytechnic University health and social sciences professor Timothy Sim, Ph.D.

“I absolutely think these findings are significant,” said Eitan Schwarz, M.D., a child psychiatrist at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and author of Kids, Parents & Technology: A Guide for Young Families.

“There’s no doubt that interactive technologies have a profound effect on us,” Schwarz told TechNewsWorld.

Other experts interpreting the findings urge caution, however.

“We need to be very careful throwing around terms like ‘addiction’ when discussing behavioral activities, and not the ingestion of substances,” said Western Connecticut State University psychology professor Shane Murphy, who authored a 2007 study on social online games for the Journal of Media Psychology.

“While the overuse of video game play is a cause for serious concern, it is probably better understood as an example of impulse-control disorder,” Murphy told TechNewsWorld.

Singapore, Too

Known as a strict society where chewing gum is banned and youthful misbehavior can merit caning — a harsh spanking with a rattan cane — Singapore doesn’t seem a natural laboratory to study addictive pastimes among children.

The Pediatrics study, however, sampled 3,034 Singaporean children in grades 3, 4, 7 and 8 over two years, measuring “several hypothesized risk and protective factors for developing or overcoming pathological gaming,” explained the study’s principal investigator, Iowa State University psychology professor Douglas Gentile.

Factors sampled included weekly amounts of game play, impulsivity, social competence, depression, social phobia, anxiety and school performance.

Despite Singapore’s strict standards, “the prevalence of pathological gaming was similar to that in other countries — roughly 9 percent,” Gentile explained. His team also identified several pathological gaming risk factors: greater amounts of gaming, lower social competence and greater impulsivity.

As in the case of alcoholism and drug addictions, depression, anxiety, social phobias and lower school performance “seemed to act as outcomes of pathological gaming,” he noted.

Inescapable Immersion

Microsoft’s launch of Avatar Kinect at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show — and all the hype about new motion-sensing video games — suggests that gaming technologies are likely to become even more addictive.

“The overall experience of being able to talk to the device, wave your hand to do this or that, and to see a realistic representation of yourself is very engaging,” Iowa State University management information systems professor Brian Mennecke told TechNewsWorld. Mennecke, who was not involved in the Pediatrics study, researches social and team interactions in virtual worlds.

“What happens is that people often ‘suspend disbelief’ and immerse themselves cognitively in the environment,” he explained. “[Avid gamers] will tell you that they, in a sense, become one with the environment.”

That’s the premise of James Cameron’s “Avatar” and may be the prelude to the kind of addiction Conrad Aiken so eloquently described in his classic short story, “Silent Snow, Secret Snow”: the inescapable immersion.

Citing recent robotics studies by MIT researcher Sherry Turkle, Northwestern’s Schwarz maintained that “an interactive technology, if interactive enough, can become compellingly addictive.”

So addictive, in fact, that physical manifestations can occur.

“At the extreme, avid gamers will ‘wake up’ after playing and note their body is sore, they are thirsty, etc.,” ISU’s Mennecke explained. “Because they were so immersed in the virtual world, they could ignore their body’s stimuli telling them about their real circumstances.”

Though games like Kinect “are often focused on real world physical activity,” Mennecke noted — observing that when he plays Kinect Adventure for 20 minutes, he is physically tired — the downside is as ISU’s Gentile and team predict: “addiction and sedentary behavior.”

Regardless of how it’s labeled — as addiction, compulsion, or obsession — WCSU’s Murphy said the problem is likely to remain limited.

“I recently completed a major study of the motivations and experiences of video game players which suggests that the concern with frequent out-of-control play is limited to a small subset of gamers,” he pointed out. “As is often the case with emerging technologies, the fears and worries of some researchers often are more reflective of their own anxieties than of a real issue with the vast majority of gamers.”

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