Video games have exploded as a pastime, particularly among young people. But some are concerned that certain players may develop a “video game addiction” wherein gaming interferes with other life responsibilities such as academics or family life. Recently, 26 scholars (including myself) who research the behavioral effects of gaming released a report concluding that current research couldn’t support the common assumption that video game addiction is a legitimate disease. So, is it real thing or not?
There’s little question that a small percentage of gamers overdo it – gaming instead of doing homework, going to work or interacting with friends offline. The number of gamers affected in such a manner is quite small. One recent American Journal of Psychiatry study of nearly 19,000 young adults found less than 1 percent of people experience video game addiction. The same can be said of many activities; people overdo it with sex, food, exercise, work or religion, none of which (gambling is the exception) have been enshrined as an official disease. Is there evidence that video games are different from these other activities?
At present, the answer is no.There is actually more research on food addiction than video game addiction, for instance, and the research on the latter remains controversial. Some recent evidence suggests that video game addiction isn’t a very stable phenomenon. Unlike many serious mental illnesses, this addiction seems to most often go away by its own, without treatment.
The American Journal of Psychiatry study mentioned above found that video game addiction symptoms didn’t predict other problems in life, suggesting the clinical utility of the diagnosis is pretty limited. This is not surprising given that a fair number of the symptoms used to diagnose video game addiction may be pathologizing normal behavior. For instance, a common criterion used for addictions is “I use X to improve my mood when I am stressed.” Granted, if X is heroin, this is a bad thing! But if X is video games, it’s unclear that this is different from how people generally use hobbies to reduce stress. X could be scuba diving or jogging or reading a book, but surely these are not all addictions?
There’s also evidence that, many individuals who do have problems moderating their gaming often have an underlying mental health problem that is not a product of gaming. For instance, in a study I published several years ago, youth with pre-existing mental health symptoms (attention problems) tended to exhibit problems moderating their gaming one year later. However, video game habits did not predict later mental health problems. This suggests that mental health issues come first, with gaming issues a symptom rather than a cause. One way to think of this is noting that many people who are depressed often sleep more due to fatigue, spending more time in bed, but we wouldn’t diagnose them with a separate “bed addiction.”
Why, then, does video game addiction get so much attention? It seems we are pretty clearly in a cycle of moral panic regarding video games. This is not much different from previous moral panics regarding other media from Elvis Presley, to rock music in the 1980s (remember the Tipper Gore/Parents Music Resource Center hearings?) to the “Harry Potter” series to “Dungeons and Dragons.” Moral panics can put political pressure on scientific bodies to rush to rash claims despite a lack of solid evidence. For instance, in conversations with one administrator at the World Health Organization, who is considering including potential video game addiction diagnoses in their International Compendium of Diseases, he acknowledged that political pressure, from Asian countries in particular, was one factor.
Politics makes for really bad science. Premature efforts to label video game addiction a disease may actually do more harm than good. There have been reports that camps used to treat video game addiction in China are sometimes abusive. Such disorders may be used in some countries as an excuse to restrict free speech. And, more generally, falsely labeling some youth as addictive may cause unnecessary strife between parents and youth, and could limit access to social support through social gaming for some youth, worsening their well-being.
Video game addiction is certainly a topic worthy of future research. And scholarly opinions on the validity of video game addiction remain mixed. But, at present, the solid, consistent and well-validated research base necessary to label video game addiction a disease or disorder has not materialized. There is too much research evidence suggesting that we should be cautious in moving ahead.