Your kid’s video game addiction may be perfectly normal

While heavy gaming, particularly in boys, can be a warning signal for parents, not everyone who plays many hours a day is at risk for problems, including depression.

Some downsides of gaming, a new study finds, may be balanced out in those who are socially engaged either through social media and texting or in real life. In fact, reseachers say, boys with high-quality friendships appear to be better protected from depression associated with heavy use of video games.

“We shouldn’t assume all of them have a problem.”

“While playing video games for four hours a day can be worrisome behavior, not everyone who does so is at risk of developing symptoms of addiction or depression,” says study leader Michelle Colder Carras, a postdoctoral researcher in mental health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“If these adolescents are sitting around playing games together with their friends or chatting regularly with their friends online as they play, this could be part of a perfectly normal developmental pattern,” she says. “We shouldn’t assume all of them have a problem.”

The findings, published online in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, could inform authorities such as the World Health Organization and American Psychiatric Association that have proposed classifying “internet gaming disorder” as a condition on par with substance abuse and pathological gambling.

10,000 teens

Colder Carras and colleagues analyzed surveys of nearly 10,000 teenagers in the Netherlands. Researchers asked how often the teens use video games, social media, and instant messaging, and asked about their friendships. They also asked about addictive behaviors, including whether the teens feel they can stop gaming if they want to or get irritable when not playing.

While only Dutch teens participated, Colder Carras believes responses would be similar in other developed nations such as the United States.

In their analysis, the researchers found that symptoms of video game addiction depend not only on video game play but also on concurrent levels of online communication; those who were socially active online reported fewer symptoms of game addiction.

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All subsets of heavy gamers had more depressive symptoms, but boys who were not very social online showed more loneliness and anxiety, regardless of the quality of their friendships. Girls who gamed extensively but were also very active in online social settings had less loneliness and social anxiety but also lower self-esteem.

Internet gaming disorder was proposed for further study in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), known as the bible of the American Psychiatric Association. Questions remain about how to distinguish engaged gamers–with fewer symptoms of addiction and depression–from problem gamers, who lose control over gaming and can risk significant harm or distress.

Find out why kids play

To be sure, Colder Carras says, most adolescents who played video games four or more hours a day did report depressive symptoms, possibly reflecting problems that need treatment. But it shouldn’t be assumed that all those adolescents have a gaming-related disorder that needs treating. Parents and clinicians need to look at the underlying reasons why the teens play so many games.

“Our findings open up the idea that maybe playing a lot of video games can be part of having an active social life. Instead of being concerned about the game playing, we should focus on those who also lack a social life or have other problems,” she says.

Is a teen gaming because he is too depressed to cope with the real world? Or are games a way to socialize and bond with others, either in person or online?

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“Rather than seeing a lot of video game playing and worrying that this reflects gaming-related problems, parents and clinicians should figure out whether these teens also have high-quality friendships,” Colder Carras says. “It could just be that they have good friends who they like to hang out and play video games with. That is probably not a worrisome equation.”

Other researchers involved in the study are from IVO Addiction Research Institute and Tilburg University in the Netherlands, imec-MICT-Ghent University in Belgium, and Johns Hopkins. The National Institutes of Health supported the work.

Source: Johns Hopkins University