Teen video game addiction requires careful intervention from parents. Experts say video games can be just as addicting as street drugs and it’s not uncommon for kids to become violent when their ‘drug’ is taken away.
“There definitely is a link between violent game use and aggressive behavior,” says Dr. Kimberly Young, a psychologist and founder of the Center for Online and Internet Addiction in Bradford, Pennsylvania.”Kids will throw things, they’ll hit their parents, they’ll start becoming violent at school.
“It affects the same pleasure centers in the brain that make people want to come back,” said Dr. Michael Fraser, a clinical psychologist and professor at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. “If you look at alcoholism and Internet addiction, it’s the exact same pattern of behavior,” agreed Dr. Young.
“Kids can become physically and verbally abusive,” said Fraser. “Most parents have trouble imagining this—that their 12-year-old boy would push his mother when she tries to unplug the game.” Games like ‘Call of Duty’ are open-ended, unlike arcade games of the past, which may make them even more addictive.
Video game and Internet addiction usually point to other mental problems including anxiety, depression and trouble forming healthy relationships, said Fraser. His patients, mostly boys in high school and college, use games as means of escape from social anxiety.
“When we use the term ‘video game addiction’ the problem does not really lay in the video games, any more than the problem for an alcoholic lies in a can of beer,” Fraser said. “Many people can have one can of beer, and that’s it. But others may have a biological predisposition towards addictive behavior in general. When you see a heavy drinker going into a bar, you know what they’re going in there for. But when a kid goes into the library or their room and sits at a laptop, it’s not always apparent that they’re going to do something detrimental.”
At an addiction treatment center in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, teenagers and young adults begin detox by admitting they are powerless over their addiction. But these addicts aren’t hooked on heroin or crack cocaine. They are going cold turkey to break their dependence on video games.
Keith Bakker, director of Smith & Jones Addiction Consultants created the new program in response to a growing problem among young men and boys. “The more we looked at it, the more we saw gaming addiction was taking over the lives of these kids.”
Detox for video game addiction may sound like a stretch, but addiction experts say the concept makes sense. “I was surprised we didn’t think of it here in America,” says Dr. Young.”I’ve had so many parents call me over the last year or two, particularly about the role-playing games online. I see it getting worse as the opportunity to play grows – for example, cell phone gaming.”
While most people associate addiction with substance abuse, such as drugs or alcohol, doctors recognize addictive behaviors as well: The person needs more and more of a substance or behavior to keep him going. If the person does not get more of the substance or behavior, he becomes irritable and miserable.
Young says compulsive gaming meets these criteria, and she has seen severe withdrawal symptoms in game addicts. “They become angry, violent, or depressed. If parents take away the computer, their child sits in the corner and cries, refuses to eat, sleep, or do anything.”
Like drugs, gambling releases dopamine. Video gaming is in the same category. But there’s more to addiction than brain chemistry. Even with alcohol, it’s not just physical. There’s a psychological component to the addiction, knowing I can escape or feel good about my life. The person is trying to change the way they feel by taking something outside of themselves. The cocaine addict learns, “I don’t like the way I feel, so I take a line of cocaine to feel beter.” For gamers, it’s the fantasy world that makes them feel better.
The lure of a fantasy world is especially pertinent to online role-playing games. These are games in which a player assumes the role of a fictional character and interacts with other players in a virtual world. As Young puts it, an intelligent child who is unpopular at school can become dominant in the game and the virtual life becomes more appealing than real life.
Video game addiction can ruin lives. Children who play four to five hours per day have no time for socializing, doing homework, or playing sports, he says. “That takes away from normal social development. You end up with a 21-year-old with the emotional intelligence of a 12-year-old. He’s never learned to talk to girls. He’s never learned to play a sport.
In older addicts, compulsive gaming can jeopardize jobs or relationships. Howard, a 33-year-old project manager who asked to be identified only by his first name, started playing World of Warcraft about six months ago. He plays for three to four hours almost every day (more on weekends) often putting off meals or sleep. His fiance says he’s addicted.
Video game addicts tend to become isolated, dropping out of their social networks and giving up other hobbies. “It’s about somebody who has completely withdrawn from other activities,” Young says. “One mother called me when her son dropped out of baseball. He used to love baseball, so that’s when she knew there was a problem.”
Treatment for video game addiction is similar to detox for other addictions, with one important difference. Computers have become an important part of everyday life, as well as many jobs, so compulsive gamers can’t just look the other way when they see a PC. “It’s like a food addiction,” Young explains. “You have to learn to live with food.”