A new study has found that children and teenagers who are addicted to video games are more likely to suffer from psychological disorders such as depression.
The study in the February addiction of Pediatrics said kids who spend a lot of time playing video games have trouble fitting in with other kids and are more impulsive than children who aren't addicted. Once addicted, children were more likely to become depressed, anxious or have other social phobias.
"What we've known from other studies is that video gaming addiction looks similar to other addictions," said Douglas A. Gentile, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University in Ames. "But what wasn't clear was what comes before what. Gaming might be a secondary problem. It might be that kids who are socially awkward, who aren't doing well in school, get depressed and then lose themselves into games. We haven't really known if gaming is important by itself, or what puts kids at risk for becoming addicted."
The fascinating part of the study is that, according to Gentile, "the gaming precedes the depression. We don't know if it's truly causal, but gaming has an effect on its own, and you can't just ignore gaming and treat depression."
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Not only did the study reveal risk factors for pathological gaming, "the real surprise came from looking at the outcomes, because we had assumed depression might be the real problem," explained Gentile. "But we found that in kids who started gaming pathologically, depression and anxiety got worse. And, when they stopped gaming, the depression lifted. It may be that these disorders [co-exist], but games seem to make the problem worse."
The average time spent playing video games was 20.5 to 22.5 hours a week among the children surveyed. But Gentile pointed out, "A lot of video gaming isn't the same as an addiction. Some kids can play a lot without having an effect on their lives. It's when you see other areas of your child's life suffer that it may be addiction. Parents might notice that a child doesn't have the same friends any more, or that he's just sitting in his room playing video games all the time. Or, there might be a drop in school performance."
In this study about 9% of the children surveyed qualified as being pathological video gamers, and Gentile said that number is fairly consistent with the U.S. population's rate of pathological gaming.
So what can parents do?
"Getting highly involved with video games can become addicting, and parents need to be cautious about how many hours kids play," said Dr. Richard Gallagher, director of the Parenting Institute at the New York University Child Study Center in New York City.
"In this study, it looks like kids with less than 19 hours a week didn't get involved in pathological gaming, so no more than two hours a day," he suggested.