With kids spending more and more time online, unhealthy gaming habits are prevalent. The World Health Organization recognizes gaming addiction as a disorder.
The warning signs of gaming addiction include:
- Inability to limit screen time or stop gaming
- Withdrawal symptoms, even for brief periods of time
- Lack of personal care, insomnia, disrupted eating patterns
- No interest in other activities or social life
To deal with excessive gaming or gaming addiction effectively, it’s important that you talk to your child about what’s going on, model healthy behavior, find out the underlying causes of the addictive behavior, and take small steps towards healthier habits.
Do you know or suspect that your child is developing a video game addiction? This article provides you with resources and advice on how to break it.
Children were glued to TV sets in the 1950s and Nintendo Game Boys in the 1990s. Technology has an allure for children, and the idea of kids getting addicted to technology is so persistent that it’s almost a stereotype.
But beneath the pop culture image of teenagers locking themselves in their bedrooms all day to play video games lies a sinister reality: In 2022, excessive gaming is more common than ever before.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, kids’ screen time in the United States increased by 500 percent. Kids and teens are now spending between five and eight hours online per day on average. Up to 90% of American teenagers play games on their computer, console, or phone every day.
While playing video games can be fun and educational, excessive gaming or internet gaming disorder (IGD) can have severely damaging effects on a child’s mental and physical health. As a result, many parents are worried about their kids’ gaming habits.
How much gaming is too much? How can you tell if your child has a video game addiction? What are the long-term consequences?
This article will explain what video game addiction is, how to recognize it, and how you can help break it.
What Is Gaming Addiction?
To most people, video games are nothing but harmless entertainment, a way to connect to friends, or to blow off some steam after a long day. Games like The Sims, Minecraft, and Roblox are very popular among kids. Whether it’s possible to get addicted to video games, however, has been a topic of debate for years.
At the moment, video game addiction is not recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) claims there is insufficient evidence to classify gaming addiction as an official mental disorder. Rather, excessive gaming may be a symptom of other mental health issues, such as loneliness and depression.
The World Health Organization (WHO), however, included video game addiction on their list of recognized mental health conditions in 2019.
Video games are made to be addictive. They immerse the player with compelling sound effects and haptic feedback. The development of virtual reality games has made playing games even more engaging.
Currently, research is being done into the way gaming mirrors so-called “process addictions,” such as shopping or exercising. The American Psychiatric Association acknowledges that games trigger certain neurological pathways that stimulate pleasure and reward. In the extreme, playing video games affects the brain in much the same way as alcohol, drugs, and gambling.
When does excessive gaming turn into an addiction? It’s more than just spending a lot of time playing games. According to the WHO, it’s when gaming interferes with a person’s daily life for an extended period.
Video game addiction is demonstrated by the following three symptoms if they occur for a period of at least 12 months:
- Impaired control over gaming: an inability to control the urge to play video games
- Increased priority is given to gaming (to the extent that it takes precedence over any other interests and daily activities)
- Continuation or escalation of gaming (despite negative consequences to health, social relationships, academic performance, or work)
How common is gaming addiction?
According to Pew Research Center, about eight in ten American teenagers (84%) have a game console at home. In 2018, 97% of boys reported that they played video games in some form or fashion. This is a much higher statistic than girls at 83%.
Across the world, online activity is increasing, both as a result of new technology as well as time spent at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of the arbitrary definition of video game addiction, numbers on how common this disorder is depends on the research.
Generally, boys are more susceptible to developing video game addiction. There are several reasons for this.
A recent study links gaming addiction to the higher levels of “maladaptive cognitions” in boys. This refers to unhealthy thought patterns in terms of self-expectations and beliefs.
The study highlights that boys who game tend to overvalue rewards. This sensitivity makes them more likely to keep playing over long periods of time.
Shame, distress, and internalized misogyny have also been linked to the way boys channel their emotions into compulsive behavior.
How do kids develop video game addiction?
Experts don’t offer definitive reasons why some children get addicted to video games and others don’t. Rather, there seem to be multiple factors at play.
In the first place, many kids get into video and computer games because of social exposure and hype. Addictive games that seemingly become popular overnight, such as Minecraft or Animal Crossing, are wildly popular with kids because they are easy to play.
Companies intentionally target kids and develop games that will keep them hooked. You’re continuously persuaded to try one more time to reach the next level or get one more reward. For kids, this is difficult to resist.
A study published in the Clinical Psychological Science journal in 2019 noted that video game addiction can often develop as a result of other mental health issues or pre-existing conditions.
Certain games like Overwatch, which offer a quick match, can be highly addictive, as many kids try to squeeze in just a few games whenever they have time. Over time, this habit continues to worsen.
Children can be drawn to gaming as a way to “escape” the reality of their lives, heavily influenced by friends, school, and their environment. Additionally, kids who suffer from anxiety or attention deficit disorders can be more drawn to playing video games.
Gaming addiction and ADD/ADHD
Despite the prevalence of online conspiracy theories, video games can, in no way, cause ADD or ADHD.
While excessive gaming may lead to symptoms of attention deficit disorders down the line, kids with ADD or ADHD are generally more susceptible to certain elements of gaming, making them more prone to developing an addiction.
The fast-paced world of video gaming can appeal to children with ADD or ADHD.
A 2018 study looked at compulsive video use in children with ADHD and those without. In the test group, 37.5% of kids with ADHD displayed compulsive gaming tendencies versus 11.8% of kids without. While any child can develop a gaming disorder, those with ADD or ADHD may likely be at a higher risk.
Experts are investigating the positive effects of gaming for kids with ADD or ADHD, for example, games that train focus. However, research is still ongoing and should not take the place of professional treatment.
Does My Child Have a Gaming Addiction?
To be clear: there is a big difference between excessive gaming and video game addiction. You shouldn’t panic when your kids spend a lot of time online. Video game addiction has very specific symptoms and usually develops over a long period.
If you’re a parent, guardian, or teacher, and you’re worried about a child’s gaming behavior, the following signs can help you identify whether they are developing an addiction.
Warning signs of video game addiction
According to the American Psychological Association, video game addiction is built on a preoccupation with gaming, as well as the need to spend more time playing video games.
The child is usually unable to set limits on how much they play. Also, they may develop a consistent need to play more intensely over time in order to reach the same level of enjoyment.
Withdrawal symptoms are common with addictions. For gaming, these include sadness, irritability, and anxiety when being deprived of the possibility of playing video games, even if it’s only for a short period.
Besides these symptoms, less obvious clues may include:
- A clear loss of interest in other activities and social life; neglecting hobbies and friends.
- Forgoing basic needs such as eating and sleeping; inability to take care of personal hygiene.
- Lying to relatives about the time spent playing video games.
- Performing poorly at school due to the inability to focus.
- Ignoring problems caused by video games.
Consequences of Gaming Addiction
Playing video games can be fun and educational. For kids and teenagers, however, excessive gaming can have long-lasting emotional and physical consequences.
Mental effects of excessive gaming
Video game addiction does not only affect a child’s emotions, but also their nervous system. As a result of constant overstimulation and hyperarousal, a gamer’s body produces increased levels of cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone.” This can cause chronic stress, and could have multiple mental consequences:
- Lack of concentration
- Difficulty managing emotions and impulses
- Hostility and aggression
- Decreased levels of creativity and compassion
- Lack of social engagement
In the IMAGEN project, researchers looked at the neurological effects of excessive gaming by studying over 150 healthy adolescents. The study shows that the level of white and gray matter in the brain—associated with decision making, emotional regulation, and impulse control—decreased in frequent gamers compared to infrequent gamers.
The study also revealed that video game addiction can prime the brain for other types of addictions, due to the way dopamine is released in relation to loss and reward. However, the authors emphasized that more research is needed to reach a conclusion.
Physical effects of excessive gaming
Kids’ and teenagers’ bodies are continuously developing. So, while adults can also suffer from gaming addiction, there are key risks for younger players:
- Sedentary lifestyle; lack of physical exercise, weight gain, poor posture, and a higher risk of type two diabetes
- Lowered immune function due to chronic stress
- Seizures from exposure to flickering graphics, lights, and colors
- Insomnia and chronic fatigue
- Repetitive stress injuries in wrists or hands, including Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS), which causes pain, tingling, and numbing
- Poor personal hygiene
- Disrupted eating patterns
- Myopia and other eye conditions
In 2020, the largest study ever done on teenage video game addiction followed a group of adolescents for six years. Of this group, 10% showed mental and physical symptoms that got worse over time.
How to Deal with Gaming Addiction
Addiction can quickly become destructive. If you suspect your child might be struggling with video game addiction, it’s good to spend some time thinking about how you want to tackle it.
Talk to your child and ask them how video gaming affects them personally. Identifying the problem together can help your child realize you’re on their side. Listen to them, take note of their needs, and be patient. Slow and steady wins the race.
Realize that balance is key. Your child doesn’t have to stop gaming completely to develop healthier habits. Incremental changes are highly recommended.
Make sure time spent not gaming is spent well: meeting up with friends, going out somewhere. If you keep the conversation open, you decrease the chances that your efforts will backfire.
Getting Rid of Gaming Addiction: Steps to Take
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with video game addiction. Kids handle technology in various ways and have unique personalities, family environments, and resources at hand.
Regardless of the exact circumstances, however, the following steps can help you along.
1. Create an action plan together
While it may seem tempting to set strict rules and make sure your child abides by them, this often backfires. Kids want a degree of autonomy in how they use technology.
As a parent or guardian, you ultimately set limits and decide how much media you want your child to consume each day. However, talking to them, explaining your reasoning, and involving them in deciding the parameters of their time spent playing video games can go a long way.
2. Model healthy use of screens and downtime
The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages a good balance between screen time and offline activities. To confront a child’s video game addiction, it can help to create structured, screen-free times and agree on regular breaks. For example, you could decide to put devices away during meals, in the mornings, and before bed.
Parents can help a child battle their video game addiction by following the guidelines themselves. This is especially important for younger children. The more you are willing to put down your phone or device, the more likely they’ll be to copy your behavior.
This approach can extend beyond your child’s video game playing: model healthy communication, relaxation and exercise, quality time, and emotional maturity.
3. Address underlying issues
Video game addiction can sometimes be a symptom of other issues. Often, there are other factors at play, such as loneliness, anxiety, or stress. Games might keep these negative emotions at bay or strengthen them. The horror game Poppy Playtime, for example, can worsen existing anxiety issues.
Talking to your child about why they enjoy gaming so much might help you figure out whether they are using video games as an escape from something else.
In certain cases, professional help can be useful. If your child is seriously suffering, talking to a doctor, psychologist, or educational professional could give you the support you need.
4. Build positive coping mechanisms
Make sure your kids are alright when they’re not gaming. Encourage them to talk about their emotions and experiences. Go outside with them. Find a type of exercise or physical activity that they enjoy.
A walk around the block or a ten-minute meditation session can lessen a child’s anxiety. Doing something creative or spending time with family can increase serotonin levels and have a positive effect on problematic gaming symptoms.
5. Show interest and reframe playing games in a positive way
While it may seem counterintuitive to invest time in playing games, when your child suffers from excessive behavior, showing interest can make them more sympathetic to your wish for change.
Understanding how a game works will make it easier for you to learn about what your child is doing, and perhaps why they’re so drawn to it. If you can ask specific questions about how a game works, it becomes easier to talk to your child about gaming in general. It will also make it easier for them to talk to you.
Reframing gaming in a positive way will limit the chances of arguments and make it easier to work on healthier habits together.
6. Use with caution: parental controls
While total surveillance is discouraged, in certain cases, using monitoring tech can be beneficial. Programs such as Qustodio and Bark block certain applications automatically after a certain time of playing.
Keep in mind that this type of technology is not without consequences. Children have a right to privacy, as much as anyone else. However, as long as you are open with your children and talk to them about this type of tech, it might be a solution.
Kids and Gaming: Best Practices
To help your child develop healthier gaming habits, it helps to keep these tips in mind:
- Take regular breaks. It’s recommended that children, especially young children, not look at screens closely for longer than 20 minutes at a time. Encourage children to take breaks from gaming by going outside, having a drink, or doing a short physical activity.
- Encourage active screen time over passive screen time. The quality of games your child consumes is just as important as the length of play. Encourage your child to play games with friends, games that are suited for their age, and allow them to have a positive experience.
- Keep some distance from the screen. To reduce the risk of developing eye conditions, make sure the monitor or screen is a good distance away from your child’s eyes.
- Sit upright and support wrists and feet. A good sitting position is as important as the distance from the screen. Make sure your child isn’t straining their neck to see the screen.
- Don’t game before bedtime. Playing games before bedtime will keep the brain active for much longer than necessary. This can make it difficult to wind down properly. It’s recommended that kids stop playing video games at least an hour and a half before bed.
- First homework, then games. If your child is struggling to meet their responsibilities, it can help to set rules like this. When approached in a positive manner, gaming time can be something a child looks forward to after finishing other tasks.
The tips and advice offered in this article apply to excessive gaming. However, if your child is suffering from a severe case of video game addiction, it can be useful to know what resources to turn to.
In the first place, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) lists age-appropriate ratings for popular games, as well as general guidelines. They have a Family Gaming Guide with tips for families with kids of different ages, and other tools.
The American Addiction Centers website also offers resources and options for treatment across the United States.
While gaming addiction is rare, excessive gaming is widespread and can have very negative effects on kids’ mental and physical health. Factors such as loneliness, anxiety, and stress worsen unhealthy gaming habits. Warning signs include:
- Inability to control the urge to play video games
- Withdrawal symptoms
- Disruptions to eating and sleeping habits
For parents, it can be a struggle to find appropriate ways to deal with video game addiction. Generally, it’s important to address underlying issues, agree on boundaries, and show an interest in your child’s experience. If your child suffers seriously, professional treatment is also an option.
There are other worries that parents might have to deal with when it comes to children and online gaming. Some games might not be appropriate for children, for example. For more advice on children and technology, check out what experts have to say about kids and internet safety.
Are you wondering how to break a video game addiction? Do you worry about the effects of excessive gaming on your child? Read the FAQ section below for some quick answers to common questions about gaming addiction.
In 2019, the World Health Organization recognized gaming disorder on the basis of the following characteristics:
- Inability to control the urge to game
- Prioritizing gaming over other interests and activities
- Escalation of gaming, despite negative consequences
While serious video game addiction is rare, excessive and unhealthy gaming is becoming more prevalent.
Gaming can be fun and educational, but excessive gaming has many negative emotional and physical effects, including:
- Increased anxiety, depression, and irritability
- Difficulty managing emotions and impulses
- Lack of social engagement
- Chronic stress
- Repetitive stress injuries
- Eye conditions
The warning signs of video game addiction include:
- A severe preoccupation with gaming
- An inability to stop despite negative consequences
- A need to play ever more intensely to reach the same level of satisfaction
These symptoms have to be displayed over a long period.
Here are some tips that can help to break a child’s video game addiction:
- Create an action plan together that includes boundaries and limits to gaming.
- Model healthy use of screens and downtime, including ways to pass the time not playing video games.
- Address underlying issues.
- Build healthy coping mechanisms for feelings of stress, anxiety, and loneliness.
- Reframe playing games in a positive way.
- Use parental controls in cases of severe addiction.
Read our full article on gaming addictions for more tips and tricks on how to build healthy gaming habits for your children.
Kids with ADD or ADHD are more susceptible to developing a strong liking for the fast-paced world of gaming. Studies show that kids with attention deficit disorders are prone to developing compulsive gaming tendencies.
Video games stimulate the pleasure and reward centers in the brain. This is the reason for their addictive nature. While they can be fun and educational, excessive gaming has been linked to difficulties focusing on schoolwork and other mundane, less exciting tasks.
Yes, excessive gaming can have negative effects on a child’s behavior, including anxiety, irritability, aggression, and poor hygiene.