Is Your Child at Risk of Developing a Video Game Problem?

How to spot and prevent a gaming problem.

Posted Nov 16, 2020

This post was co-authored by Madisen Watkins and Sarah M. Coyne

School of Family Life, Brigham Young University

Image by Monika Baechler from Pixabay
Source: Image by Monika Baechler from Pixabay

They sit there, controller in hand, eyes glued to the screen, without a clue of what is going on around them for hours at a time. You worry their gaming habits are changing who they are and that there might be no cure for their obsession. Could the amount of time spent with violent video games make them more aggressive? How much of this might be filling time and how much might be transferable to their relationships in real life? Finally, as a parent, you might wonder whether this is just a phase that will pass, or is this something of consequence that you should be worried about? Can one really be addicted to video gaming?

Teen and young adult video game use has become more popular over recent years with games that have become increasingly realistic and immersive for users. These days[i], it is rare to find a young person (especially for boys) who would not choose to play video games when given the chance. Video games have become a regular part of teen culture, social life, and entertainment. As a result, many parents question what a healthy amount of gaming looks like, how it relates to isolation, and whether it leads to aggression, violent behavior, addiction, and more.

What Does Internet Gaming Disorder Look Like?

Internet gaming disorder (IGD) has recently been established by the DSM-V as a mental disorder worthy of concern, treatment, and future study. While IGD is considered pathological, the large majority of gamers are involved in what is described as recreational gaming. Those whose gaming habits have become pathological show symptoms[ii] such as a preoccupation with video games, signs of withdrawal when not playing, and a compulsion to continue to play even when it causes serious family, social, education, and occupational disruptions. 

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay
Source: Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

In a recent study[iii], we wanted to investigate how IGD or pathological gaming functioned and transformed during adolescence and young adulthood. We also sought answers to the question of who might be at most risk of developing an IGD or video gaming problem and what are the long-term outcomes of a problem, including aggression. 

Our longitudinal study found that of the 385 adolescents studied, who fell between the ages of 14 and 16 at the start of our research, 90 percent of participants did not develop pathological tendencies and over time their video game use declined into their early adult years. The other 10 percent showed increased signs of pathological use and fell deeper into pathological play as they reached young adulthood.

These young individuals had at least two key factors in common: they were males and they demonstrated lower levels of prosocial behavior than other teens. More research[iv] has shown that when IGD is paired with certain types of videogames, particularly those of violent or sexual nature, individuals not only exhibited fewer prosocial behaviors but displayed an overall increase in anti-social and aggressive behavior patterns.

Prosocial or Anti-Social Gaming

Aggression is recognized as a common trait[v] associated with the IGD. In fact, research has shown that playing violent video games is linked to increased aggressive behavior[vi] and other anti-social patterns, like bullying and drug use. In our study, individuals with IGD showed higher levels of anxiety, aggression, and shyness than other teens, despite showing no significant difference in these traits years earlier.

Despite evidence of this relationship, there is constant debate on whether there is a real association between video games and aggression. Some researchers[vii] claim that the link between aggression and video games is mere coincidence or there are other factors, like frustration from losing or the general competitive nature[viii] of games that might be to blame for these results. However, our research suggests that a long history of pathological gaming during adolescence is associated with more aggression and more serious IGD symptoms during emerging adulthood. Excessive video game play likely exposes teenagers and young adults to more violent video games, thus feeding the cycle of inhibited prosocial behavior and heightened aggressive behavior.

Is There a Remedy for Video Gaming?

Despite growing evidence that video games can be harmful to individuals and families, the fear of you or a loved one developing a video game problem should not deter you or your family from playing games. In fact, when used correctly, video games can help foster close relationships and prosocial behaviors[ix]. In fact, several video games[x] on the market teach prosocial behavior such as sharing, empathy, and cooperation. And no matter the type of games you and your family play, developing patterns of prosocial behavior in yourself and your children will be a protective factor against video gaming and the problems associated with the mental disorder.

If you or a loved one shows signs of pathological video game use, there are several mental health resources available in most communities and online. Family therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, and residential treatment are all great options for those individuals and families seeking help and hope for a chance at moving toward recovery[xi].