Using clinical-style criteria similar to that for measuring gambling behaviour, a new study confirmed what many parents already believe, that not only is it possible for children to become “addicted” to video games but nearly 10 per cent of American youngsters actually are.

The study was the work of Iowa State University’s Assistant Professor of Psychology, Dr Douglas Gentile, and was published online on 13 April in the journal Psychological Science.

Clinicians prefer to use the word pathological to describe behaviour that is harming normal everyday function in several ways, rather than addiction.

Gentile explains in his background information that other researchers have studied whether some children and teenagers are addicted to video games, but this is the first study to do so at a nationally representative level.

The sample came from a January 2007 Harris Poll survey of 1,178 randomly selected American youths aged from 8 to 18. The survey collected enough data to enable Gentile to assess the extent to which the youngsters were showing pathological behaviour in respect of video game playing.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders already contains criteria that can be used to measure gambling behaviour and assess whether it is pathological or not. The DSM is a bit like the psychologist’s bible for assessing mental health and behavioural conditions. The criteria include the extent to which the behaviour causes family, social, school or psychological damage, among other things.

Gentile, who is also director of research for the Minneapolis-based National Institute on Media and the Family, adapted the DSM criteria to assess the video gaming behaviour descriptions captured in the survey.

He explained that:

“What we mean by pathological use is that something someone is doing — in this case, playing video games — is damaging to their functioning.”

“It’s not simply doing it a lot,” he stressed, “it has to harm functioning in multiple ways.”

Gentile found that 8.5 per cent of the survey respondents were showing symptoms that would be classified by the manual as pathological if they had been gambling instead of playing video games. The behaviour is classed as pathological if it exhibits at least 6 of 11 symptoms.

The results showed that pathological gamers:

  • Spent 24 hours a week playing video games: about twice as much time as non-pathological gamers.
  • Were more likely to have video game systems in their bedrooms.
  • Were more likely to report having problems paying attention at school.
  • Were more likely to have received a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
  • Received poorer school grades.
  • Had poorer health.
  • Were more likely to say they felt “addicted” to their habit.
  • Stole to support their habit.

Gentile said he was surprised that so many youngsters were showing pathological symptoms of video game playing.

He started studying video game addiction in 1999 because he didn’t believe it existed, he said. He assumed parents called it “addiction” because they just didn’t understand why their kids played video games so much.

“So I measured the way you measure pathological gambling and the way it harms functioning, and was surprised to find that a substantial number of gamers do rise to that level (of pathological addiction),” said Gentile.

He added that now we know the condition exists, and the evidence is there, we need more research to work out how best to treat it.

There is still a lot to discover, he explained:

“We don’t know who’s most at risk, or whether this is part of a pattern of disorders.”

He said many disorders are part of a complex pattern with other disorders and illnesses. For example pathological video gaming could be a symptom of depression, so it is important to understand the underlying patterns in order to treat them.

Gentile is now working on longitudinal and clinical studies into the risk factors and symptoms of pathological video gaming in children and teenagers.

“Pathological Video-Game Use Among Youth Ages 8 to 18.”
Douglas Gentile.
Psychological Science, Published Online: 13 Apr 2009.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02340.x

Additional sources: Iowa State University.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD