TORONTO — Young problem gamers who play compulsively on their consoles and computers may be at greater risk than others for mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, a new study suggests.
Lead author Douglas Gentile, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University, was partners with researchers in Hong Kong and Singapore on the two-year study, part of a larger project looking at ways video games may either cause problems or benefit children.
Researchers studied more than 3,000 primary and secondary schoolchildren in Singapore starting when they were in Grades 3, 4, 7 or 8, and measured a number of things about their video game playing, school performance and other mental health issues. This included assessment of pathological gaming, weekly amount of game play, impulsiveness, social competence, depression, social phobia, anxiety and depression.
In the study, published online Monday and in the February issue of Pediatrics, researchers write that while game playing itself is not pathological initially, it becomes so for some individuals “when the activity becomes dysfunctional, harming the individual’s social, occupational, family, school and psychological function.”
In earlier research, Gentile said kids who were pathological gamers showed similar patterns with other variables seen in addictions like those to drugs or gambling. They tended to be male, have more hostile personalities, engage in more anti-social and aggressive behaviours and had worse grades in school.
What were unknowns were whether they were just going through a phase, or if they were having a difficult time breaking free from pathological gaming, as well as the types of things that were either predictors or outcomes of problem gaming.
“We had assumed that it might be the case that pathological gaming isn’t necessarily that big of a deal by itself because it might be part of a pattern of other problems,” Gentile said from Ames, Iowa. “For example, kids aren’t doing well in school, they get depressed and so they retreat into games, which, of course, doesn’t help their grades, and so maybe they get more depressed.”
Gentile said while they can’t say conclusively pathological gaming is a causal link for mental health issues, it appears these problems tended to follow when kids became “addicted.”
“They got more depressed, they got more anxiety, and they had greater social phobia and they got worse grades in school,” he said. “That seemed to be a consequence of the video game addiction rather than a predictor of it.”
Greater amounts of gaming, lower social competence and greater impulsivity seemed to act as risk factors for becoming pathological gamers, researchers wrote.
Dr. Bruce Ballon with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto said it’s not just about the video games but about the individuals as well, and people shouldn’t interpret that game playing will automatically lead to mental health issues.
“What you can say is there seems to be an association,” said Ballon, head of CAMH’s Adolescent Clinical and Educational Services for Problem Gambling, Gaming and Internet Use.
He said it’s worthwhile looking at the issue.
“Who’s chicken and egg though, the question about which came first, or the fact is this person might have developed this anyways, or they actually had it before they developed the video game (problem) and that’s why they’re playing the video game problematically in the first place.”
Ballon said care should be taken in using the term “addiction” when it comes to gaming because of the stigma attached to it.
“They’re getting into problems with it and it’s clear that the gaming is associated with the problem, but there’s still a lot of research not done to kind of say what are the different profiles.”
The study found 83 per cent of respondents reported playing video games at least occasionally, with an additional 10 per cent saying they used to play. The average amount of time devoted to playing was 20.5 hours a week.
Gentile said in their study they found boys were three times more likely than girls to meet the requirements of being pathological gamers. Of the children who were “addicted” in year one of the study, 84 per cent of them were still hooked two years later, demonstrating that pathological gaming was not something individuals naturally get out of easily, he noted.
Gentile said the next step is determining what will be most effective to help youngsters stop pathological gaming. He believes it is a type of impulse-control disorder, where individuals know, for example, that they should be doing their homework or going to sleep but can’t stop playing.
“Unlike a substance addiction where it actually changes your physiology and you really just have to stop cold turkey and never do it again to really beat the addiction, I’m not really sure this is the same type of thing,” he said.
“What we should be teaching kids is how to put it back into balance: that they need to be able to prioritize, make sure their homework gets done first, that they’re spending good time with their family and their friends, then with their leisure time they can game as much as they want.”