lalesh aldarwish/Pexels
Source: lalesh aldarwish/Pexels

About 3 percent of people spend so much time playing games online that it significantly interferes with other areas of their lives, according to existing research. These findings and others led the current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to propose "Internet Gaming Disorder" as a new psychiatric condition. 

Many individuals require treatment to curtail their amount of online gaming. A recent meta-analysis found that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) tends to produce the best results among existing treatments.  

However, questions remain as to what parts of the treatment make it effective. CBT tends to have multiple components (e.g., setting goals, addressing problematic thoughts, learning better problem solving); without testing them individually it's impossible to know which ones are the "active ingredients" in the treatment.

A new study from a group of researchers in Australia addressed a simple question: Could a brief period of abstinence from gaming lead to lasting reductions in levels of Internet gaming?

The researchers recruited participants from "massively multiplayer online game websites" in order to find individuals who were likely to have Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD); based on a self-report scale, participants were divided into those who likely had IGD and those who did not. 

At baseline, the IGD group played online games for an average of 38 hours per week, or more than five hours per day (the non-IGD group's average was about 15 hours/week). 

The study team then asked participants to abstain from using computer-based gaming for 84 hours (3.5 days; from Friday at midnight to Monday at noon). Following the 84-hour period of gaming abstinence, the researchers assessed the number of hours spent gaming one week and four weeks later.

At the one-week mark, average gaming time was 27 hours/week, and at four weeks it was less than 25 hours/week. While still a significant chunk of time, these numbers represent a reduction of nearly 1.5 hours per day, which could be devoted to other activities.

Interestingly, this brief period of abstinence also led to significant changes in how the individuals in the IGD group thought about gaming; for example, they were less likely to subscribe to rigid rules like having to finish a game once they've started. These shifts in beliefs may have driven some of the reduced time spent gaming in the follow-up period.

Importantly the study team was able to verify how much time the participants spent gaming since they provided their website account information to allow the researchers to check their usage. The study authors note that the sample size was relatively small (only nine in the IGD group), so it's hard to know how these findings might generalize to larger samples or to individuals who are less willing to give up gaming for 3.5 days.

If Internet gaming isn't your thing but you've struggled to control other behaviors, these findings may not surprise you. Many behaviors we want to curtail can be self-perpetuating, like when every cookie a person eats reinforces the behavior of reaching for another cookie. If this study's findings generalize to other types of behaviors, they could underscore the importance of finding ways to break the chain of maladaptive behavior. 

References

Ferguson, C. J., Coulson, M., & Barnett, J. (2011). A meta-analysis of pathological gaming prevalence and comorbidity with mental health, academic and social problems. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 45, 1573-1578.

King, D. L., & Delfabbro, P. H. (2014). The cognitive psychology of Internet gaming disorder. Clinical psychology review, 34, 298-308.

King, D. L., Kaptsis, D., Delfabbro, P. H. ,& Gradisar, M. (2017). Effectiveness of brief abstinence for modifying problematic Internet gaming and cognitions. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 73, 1573-1585.

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