Parents like to joke that children are addicted to video games. A new study shows they might be right.
Almost 1 in 10 American children, ages 8 to 18, are addicted to video games the way people are addicted to drugs or gambling, researchers at Iowa State University found in the largest study of its kind.
So-called “pathological gamers” were glued to games for 24 hours a week, about twice that of other players. They were more likely to be boys and twice as likely to have doctor-diagnosed attention problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
The findings suggest the United States could be a few years behind more tech-savvy countries such as South Korea, which has opened more than 100 clinics to treat video-game addiction, researchers said.
Scores of studies have suggested video games bring out the worst in children, but they usually target violent behavior. The addiction findings surprised even skeptical researchers.
“I started with this idea that parents just weren’t part of the video game generation and didn’t understand it,” said Doug Gentile, an ISU child psychologist who studies how advertising and other media drive behavior. “This seems to be a real problem for a lot of kids. I think parents probably have been right.”
Parents also might have played a role in the problem, the study shows.
Most addicted gamers had sophisticated game systems in their bedrooms. Of the nearly 1,200 children surveyed for the study, half had rules at home that limited access to games.
“One of the things we know from other addictions is that a major risk factor is access,” said Gentile, whose paper will be published in the May edition of Psychological Science, the journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
Gentile said video games fire up the brain’s “reward centers,” which set off the type of rush that drug addicts feel. But the impulse to play is like pathological gambling.
“It is behavior pattern, and it gets out of balance with the rest of your life,” he said.
Gentile used standards for gambling addiction to identify young video game addicts.
The addicts in Gentile’s study were more likely to report fighting, stealing, poor grades, health problems – for example, hand or wrist pain made worse by long hours of play – and attention problems. The study didn’t explore a link between those problems and video games.
Gentile says his findings spark more questions than answers. He wants to know which ages are most vulnerable, why boys make up the majority of addicts and how the dependency can be treated.
Answers might take years, he said. It also might be awhile before the public takes video game addiction seriously, Gentile said.