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The problem with excessive video game playing — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Fortnight crisis! The island is gone and our kids are not dealing well with the disappearance of their favorite game. Should we be concerned about gaming addiction? I’ve heard that this is a real thing for adults.

Concerned Gamer Mom

Dear CGM,

Gaming addiction seems to be a new phenomenon in mental health (similar to a gambling addiction) and is predominantly seen in males under the age of 30. No physical harm actually comes from excessive game playing but the amount of time — and for adults the amount of money — spent on this pastime can interfere with one’s well-being.

The intermittent rewards characteristic to gaming are similar to the thrills of gambling. One doesn’t win every gamble or game, so adrenaline surges during the uncertainties of play. A victory produces a large amount of dopamine, the feel good neurotransmitter. Winning just once plants the expectation that it could happen again. With addiction, unfortunately, over time the brain requires higher and higher doses of stimulation to be satisfied. For gamblers, they seek higher stakes to win (or lose). In gaming, levels of increasing challenge are built in to the design.

Having to stop playing, or being prevented from playing, provokes irritability and resistance such as your experience with your children. If it feels like you are between them and their “fix,” then addiction may be the appropriate discussion.

Technology Takes Control

For decades, electronic games were to be found only at arcades. But in 1974, Pong became the first video game that could be played at home. Game Boy and other inventions of the last quarter of the twentieth century let children take their games wherever they went, followed now by portable screens as ubiquitous as cell phones. A clear picture about addiction to these electronic games is only recently coming to light.

Dr. Douglas Gentile, a developmental psychologist, started his research in 1999, ironically to try to prove that video game playing was harmless. He used a questionnaire with 1,300 children ages 8 to 18 about their video game playing.

“What we started finding in the early research is it did look like some kids were doing worse in school, harming their friendships, harming their family relationships. They couldn’t stop thinking about gaming, it was the only thing they wanted to do,” Gentile says.

Gwen Dewar, who has a doctorate in biological anthropology and is founder of Parenting Science, asserts that excessive game playing may meet the criteria for an addiction in children if, “Video games dominate their lives. Playing gives them a sense of euphoria, or at least a sense of relief from unpleasant feelings. Kids experience ‘withdrawal’ if they are denied access to games. And gaming interferes with everyday life, including school and social relationships.”

Urging more research on this condition, the American Psychiatric Association is considering adding “Internet Gaming Disorder” to its official list of mental health maladies.


A key to keeping your children off a path toward gaming addiction is to not only enforce your reasonable limits on time (and content), but to encourage and support many other interests. As Gentile cautions, “A risk factor for addiction is access. It’s really hard to get addicted to drugs if you can’t get them.”

Help your children experience enjoyment, mastery, discovery and creativity in a variety of activities. Regular family outings to zoos, museums, parks, nature centers and children’s programs at the library could spark a new interest and lead to a new way to spend time at home. There are always fun family events to explore on the Chesapeake Family Calendar of Events!

A good balance for sitting on the couch and pressing buttons on the remote would be more active pursuits such as kicking a soccer ball around, playing tag, swinging on a swing or hiking through the woods. A little bit of video gaming is fine, but children need to spend an hour or more each day actively burning calories, building muscle and gaining physical agility and endurance. Physical exercise is also an excellent release for emotional stress.

Social interaction is critical for developing the “soft skills” your son will need to deal with all kinds of people the rest of his life. Games run as programmed while human beings are infinitely more complex. So look for hobbies and interests that could be enjoyed with a regular group or a steady friend, so he can learn how to navigate the ups and downs of relationships.

The social scientists who are looking at gaming addiction in children note that excessive gamers have either missed out on critical learning periods for social skills, or they may be intentionally avoiding social interaction because they are too difficult for them. Role playing games, particularly, serve as an escape from real life relationships which addicted gamers are usually not good at.

Model for your children how you enjoy a variety of interests, devote time for exercise and maintain healthy relationships. As with these good habits, your own moderation in video game playing will serve as a winning example.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.

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