Are teenagers who become addicted to gaming more likely to become addicted to alcohol or drugs?
This is a difficult question to answer as research on the impacts of gaming is in its infancy and few conclusions about how ‘addictive’ gaming actually is have been drawn. The range of different games available for people to play (the skills needed to play, the goals of the games and the themes in the games) means that the player’s experience and the likelihood of them getting ‘hooked’ on the games is very hard to measure and make judgements about.
Some games have more of the features and qualities that get kids (and even adults!) ‘hooked’ than others, similar to the way that some drugs have a higher capacity to create a physical dependence in the user. The player’s predisposition to becoming addicted to either games or drugs or alcohol is mediated by a range of complex psychological, social and genetic factors.
The online video games which have garnered a reputation for being ‘addictive’ because people seem to be highly engaged, passionate and focussed on playing them can also have lots of benefits – when played in moderation, when played with friends, and played at an age-appropriate level.
Brain imaging studies show that when gamers are ‘in game’ parts of the ‘reward centre’ of the brain are activated in similar ways that drugs and alcohol affect it. In effect, gaming feels good, triggers good brain responses and chemical pathways which are then sought out, as we habituate the desire for these feelings. It is similar for drug or alcohol use, but that doesn’t mean that if you get hooked on the feelings that gaming gives, that you will also become dependent on other substances.
The likelihood of problematic gaming use impacting a young person’s life is one issue – another that we might consider is the treatment of gaming overuse. Treatment of gaming overuse is quite difficult and also something only just starting to be explored. As with education and awareness of issues to do with the safe use of drugs and alcohol, responsible use of games and digital citizenship is promoted as a way to avoid issues relating to ‘gaming addiction’.
For a menu of games which have more pro-social and educational benefits visit the Games for Change Games Collection or Common Sense Media. For information on digital wellbeing try the Australian Council on Children and the Media or NiIRA.
Jocelyn Brewer, psychologist, school counsellor and technology and social media expert, www.jocelynbrewer.com
Thanks for your question. There’s a lot more to it that meets the eye.
Can you become ‘addicted’ to gaming?
When speaking of ‘addiction’, people generally describe the result of a process: a person finds a substance or activity which they initially really enjoy: which usually changes their mood for the better, very quickly and quite powerfully. Repeated and increased engagement with the substance or activity can create a pattern where a person’s behaviour gradually changes: they develop a desire for more of the pleasurable effect so seek more opportunities to experience larger ‘amounts’ of it.
What is happening is that the brain’s reward system is being directly and intensely activated at these times. This can trigger an accelerated learning process, telling us that ‘this is a good thing’: amplifying the positives and in a way ‘over-riding’ contemplation of the negatives. This can then lead to a range of both physical and psychological effects, which drives an ever-increasing need to engage in the activity, and a decreasing ability to recognise the mounting adverse impacts of doing so.
Even if the person eventually recognises they have a problem, initial attempts to control or stop the behaviour may fail and withdrawals may be experienced during these attempts. There is a danger here that the behaviour may then become a coping mechanism – no longer used for enjoyment, but as a means of relief.
The parents of some e-games fans may be reading this with some concern. Research out of Stanford University (2012) indicated that a number of American gamers between ages 8 and 18 studied might indeed meet psychiatry’s diagnostic criteria for addiction. Yet, while mental health professionals do recognise and diagnose alcohol and other drug-related addictive disorders (and problem gambling), excessive or impulsive internet gaming is not formally categorised as an addiction – yet.
The very important reason for this is that, while gamers who play at intense levels for prolonged periods of time – at the apparent expense of other activities, relationships and pursuits – do exhibit some of the characteristics of ‘addiction’, there has not yet been sufficient research into the complexities of such internet gaming behaviour for it to be formally classified an ‘addictive disorder’. Research in this area has only recently commenced. What we do know though is that many e-games and gambling machines do powerfully stimulate the reward centres of the brain.
What may be some of the risk factors that can lead to problematic habits or addiction?
No one starts gaming or using substances to become addicted. Also, the vast majority of gamers and substance users – even those that over-indulge for a time – manage to stave off ongoing problematic or addictive behaviour. The movement from enjoyable recreation to addiction depends on a complex interplay of variables. Those interacting variables include the individual’s environment (eg quality of family and home life, friends, types of friends, unexpected adverse life events, socio-economic background, access to alternative pursuits / opportunities, education), the effects or properties of the substance or activity engaged in (eg type and strength of effects, impact on the brains reward and learning systems), and individual factors (eg mood, physical and psychological health, experience of trauma, sociability, need for stimulation, ability to focus).
It can be argued that it is a combination of these risk factors – an unhappy alignment of planets if you like – rather than just the activity engaged in, which creates the bridge between recreation and more problematic behaviour.
So, is there a relationship between excessive, impulsive gaming and addiction to alcohol or drugs?
This year, researchers from Yale University School of Medicine (Psychology) have found that most teenagers who engage in video gaming do not display symptoms of addiction. However the 5% of teens that do develop addiction-like behaviour towards gaming are likely to also have such problem behaviours as drug use, alcohol use, smoking, and violence.
The good news is that for 89% of students studied (primarily boys), the researchers found no association between video game use and problem behaviour. In fact, the majority of video gamers were male and were not likely to engage in hazardous behaviours such as drinking alcohol, using marijuana, or smoking, and were more likely to have a high grade point average. Overall, recreational use of video gaming was considered to be normal among high school boys as it was closely related with healthy behaviours.
However, another 11% of teenagers reported playing video games for 20 hours or more per week. Among all the teenagers surveyed, 5% were classified as exhibiting problem gaming behaviour. Boys here were more likely than girls to experience problem gaming (5.8% vs. 3.0%).
The significant difference between problem gamers and other teenagers was the propensity toward problem behaviour. Although these teenagers composed a small percentage of the entire population, they were most likely to exhibit multiple behavioural problems including higher rates of smoking, drug use, violence, and depression. Please note though, that there was no inference made as to whether gaming lead to substance use, or visa-versa.
What can parents do?
There has been an extraordinary rise in our use of ‘screens’ in recent years, and our children are riding the cusp of this change. Research is only beginning to provide insights into what some of the impacts of this may be.
E-games can be engaging, challenging – some can even teach patience – and are great fun. Often however, gaming activity impacts on the brain’s prefrontal circuitry which manages attention: neuronal networks that develop from birth onward into the twenties.
The American brain studies cited revealed changes in the neural reward system of e-gamers which were, while they gamed, akin to those found in problem substance users. Such impacts on the reward system – while highly enjoyable – can be so stimulating that many alternative activities become bland, and difficult to pay attention to.
The more time kids spend sustaining attention and resisting distraction through a variety of healthy activities and relationships, the more connected and extensive their pre-frontal circuits grow. By the same token, the more often they give in to over-stimulation and avoidance of the bland or the challenging, that ability to focus, be curious and be more satisfied with simpler things may diminish.
Rob West, associate professor of psychology and director of the Cognitive Psychology Program at Iowa State University Examining the Link between Video Game ‘Addiction’ and ADD (2011)
Peter Ferentzy, W. J. Wayne Skinner, Flora I. Matheson. Illicit Drug Use and Problem Gambling. ISRN Addiction, 2013;
Dr. Flora Matheson, Research scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital’s Centre for on Inner City Health NY, with colleagues from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, conducted a review of existing literature on drug use and problem gambling. The results were published online in the journal ISRN Addiction.
Yale University study into Gaming and Problematic Behaviour (2010). Comments by lead researcher and associate professor of psychiatry and public health Rani Desai, in Health Today, NOV 15 2010. ©2013 Everything Addiction.
Links between E-gaming and Cognitive Impairment as reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, New Zealand 2011.
Parker, D., Taylor, R., Eastabrook J., Schell S., Wood, R. (2008) Problem gambling in adolescence: Relationships with internet misuse, gaming abuse and emotional intelligence. Department of Psychology, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada K9J 7B8
Sean Panambalana, psychologist, specialist in drugs, alcohol and gambling
Our Ask an Expert Week panelists are all qualified professionals in their field. However, advice given on The Kids Are All Right website is not a substitute for direct, personal, professional counselling or psychological care, medical care and diagnosis.
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