Is Video Game Addiction Real?
“I just have a feeling deep down that my son has a problem with his gaming.” This is a very common comment I hear from parents as I speak to groups about video game problems in their homes. As a parent, you know that something is not quite right and even though “everyone” is playing and culture says that it is “okay” (in fact maybe even educational for your child) you still have a little voice that bothers you. You cringe as you call your son for dinner because he is playing his video game and you already know what his answer will be. “Just one more level, Mom!” Every parent of a gamer is familiar with this response. Your child is so engrossed in his game that he has no clue what is going on around him. The lure of the game is stronger than even his hunger pains. Your family dinner time is starting off poorly again, you are tired of managing the gaming conflict in your home, and you have a nagging gut feeling that he may be in over his head. Is this normal behavior or could he actually be developing a video game addiction? Surely, it is not possible to be addicted to an ‘activity, or is it?
According to current medical science, screen addictions are real and on the rise. Your gut feeling is correct- something more is going on with your son when he is playing his game. In fact, MRIs show that his brain is actually physically changing and being restructured to accommodate the game. His game play not only produces unnatural amounts of neurochemicals, but certain neuronal pathways are being “paved” over and over.
Here is what physically starts happening when your son plays his game.
Brain chemicals are being released.
Adrenaline is released with exciting game play whether it is killing a monster or the fear of someone shooting you. This adrenaline rush activates the “fight flight” response and is what draws most kids to their games. Dopamine is also released in above-normal amounts in the pleasure center of the brain, causing the familiar gaming “good feeling” and providing all the motivation he needs to continue playing (which is why kids can also get addicted to less ‘exciting’ games found on phone apps). Many players describe a pleasant sense of “flow” or of “being in the zone” that they don’t experience elsewhere in life. If you feel that gaming has a drug-like effect on your child, you are right – it does.
Adaptation and tolerance kick in.
After experiencing the high level of dopamine over a period of time with repeated play, your son’s brain transitions to the next phase: “I’m used to it now, but now it is not enough, so I need more!” Repeated play causes nerve cells in the pleasure center to “talk to” the cells in the prefrontal cortex (planning /task center), creating a good memory. “Liking something”, means “wanting it”, which causes him to seek more of it. If you feel that your son is craving his game, he is.
Compulsion takes over.
In order to regulate the overproduction of dopamine, the brain produces less dopamine in a never-ending quest to find that perfect balance. But even when the pleasurable feeling is less (because the dopamine is less), the memory and the wanting are still there. These memories (of how good it was) produce the familiar game craving and keep the addiction going. These memories also make your son think and talk about his game all day at school. He is reminded of the good feeling even when he just chats about it with a friend, sees a DVD cover of the game, or hears the familiar music of his favorite game. His heart can race just recalling a game battle scene in the middle of math class, pulling his focus and attention away from school. These memories are buried deep in his childhood brain and will cause him to be tempted to play even years down the road. This is why more damage is done when heavy gaming starts young (under 13). Early childhood habits are the hardest to break so if you are hoping that he will outgrow it, he may not.
Withdrawal sets in when the game is removed.
Withdrawal is a nice word for a full-blown temper fit by your son. His ‘fight flight’ system has been activated through the game play and he is ready to fight the virtual bad guys, but reality (mom) is calling him away so he lashes out either verbally or physically. An anger outburst induced by withdrawing from play may be the first clue that an addiction to gaming developed in your son. In all likelihood, this addiction has actually been building for a long time. This is why you may be feeling like you are losing your son to the game.
Is your child in trouble?
If your child can list three activities that he honestly likes as much or more than his video games, then he may be a balanced, casual gamer. But if he can’t list three other equally entertaining hobbies, then you may want to review The Spectrum of Video Gaming Activity.
It is important that you trust your gut and get more information if you are questioning your child’s level of gaming. Maybe a period of time without the game to get back on track is in order, or a “rest” that Dr. Victoria Dunkley outlines in her book, Reset Your Child’s Brain. There are a growing number of families who are taking gaming overuse and addiction seriously and going game-free for a period of time to reset and restore balance in their child’s life. Local workshops are available for parents to learn more about the brain science behind gaming and get tips on how to prevent video game addiction. Most importantly, get more information and don’t delay if you know he is in trouble. If you are hoping to reduce the game conflict in your home and restore your child, you can!
To learn more about the impact of electronic screen use on mental health, refer to Dr. Victoria Dunckley’s new book: Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time. For a robust collection of up-to-date scientific research on Kids’ Brains and Screens, check out the ScreenStrong Research Page.