A few weeks ago, a new study made headlines in major newspapers across the country: Study Finds Some Youths ‘Addicted’ to Video Games, proclaimed the Washington Post. The Post article cited a figure of 8.5 percent of gamers age 8-18 nationwide showing signs of a behavioral addiction. Since the study found that 88 percent of children play video games, the scale of this problem is potentially vast — as many as 3 million kids, addicted to video games.
The claim of “addiction” is quite serious. Just doing something a lot isn’t enough to qualify as an addiction, it must have a detrimental effect on the rest of your life — your friends, family, job, and so on. If you have a family member who’s an alcoholic or a compulsive gambler, you know how devastating the consequences of addiction are. So we decided to take a closer look at this study to see if the media reports were accurate.
In 2007, Douglas Gentile commissioned a Harris poll of 1,178 American kids, age 8-18. Gentile says that while there have been previous studies of “internet addiction” or “gaming addiction,” his is the first that sampled children from the full geographic distribution across the country, rather than just kids in a single school or school district. He was also careful to evenly distribute the respondents across the country, and to balance for age, gender, and ethnicity. The survey was conducted online, which may have led to some bias, but Gentile says that since 87 percent of American kids now have access to the internet, the bias is relatively small.
The key question, of course, is what it means to be “addicted” to games. Gentile based his assessment on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders‘ criteria for pathological gambling. He created a set of 11 questions like “Over time, have you been spending much more time thinking about playing video games, learning about video-game playing, or planning your next opportunity to play.” The kids responded with “yes,” “sometimes,” or “no.” If they answered “yes” to six or more questions, then he classified the kids as pathological video-gamers. Using this measure, he found that 7.9 percent of the kids who played games were pathological gamers. But you might say that even an answer of “sometimes” should count as “yes” — if they do it at all, then that’s a symptom. Using this stronger measure, pathological gaming rose to 19.8 percent of gamers. As a compromise, Gentile decided to award a half-point for a “sometimes” response and 1 point for pure “yes” responses, and that’s where the 8.5 percent figure from the Washington Post article came from.
The questions most commonly answered “yes” included the “thinking about games” question above, whether kids used the games to “escape from problems,” “do you skip chores to play games,” “do you skip homework to play games,” and “have you done poorly on an assignment or test because you spent too much time playing games.” Over 20 percent of kids responded “yes” to each of these questions. Less-common “yes” answers include lying, stealing, or spending more and more money on games. So while some kids clearly have a serious problem controlling their video-game habit, the worst symptoms of addiction don’t seem to apply to most cases.
One tidbit that I found quite interesting in this study is how gaming habits change over time. Studies on TV have found that watching increases during elementary school, peaks in middle school, and declines during high school. But take a look at this graph of hours spent gaming every week:
There’s no significant drop-off in time spent gaming as kids get older. This leads Gentile to believe that there may indeed be a pathological dimension to video gaming. The pathological gamers are significantly more likely to report getting lower grades and having trouble paying attention in school. The problems they experience in fact cross several dimensions:
The difference between the pathological and the nonpathological gamers is significant for every question except “Has TV in bedroom.” Note especially the response to “Has felt ‘addicted’ to games.” Most of the kids operationally defined as pathological gamers appear to be aware that their gaming causes problem. Gentile says that the fact that there’s no significant difference in having a TV in pathological versus nonpathological gamers is also evidence that gaming addiction is a real condition and not just a symptom of some other problem.
But Gentile is quick to admit that since this study can only show correlations, there’s no way to be certain that pathological gaming causes these problems. It could be that kids with attention problems are simply more likely to play games, or that more aggressive kids who are more likely to both get in fights and play video games. But one finding of the study stands out to me: even after controlling for sex, age, and time spent playing video games, being a pathological gamer still predicted poorer performance in schools. So the bad grades aren’t simply a matter of games taking time away from homework.
Gentile says that much additional research is needed to find out who’s at risk for becoming a pathological gamer, what can be done to prevent it, and how long it lasts. I was a bit of a compulsive gamer as a child, but I grew out of it late in high school. Perhaps pathological gaming is simply a phase of childhood and not a serious long-term problem like alcoholism or drug addiction.
I should also point out that some pundits have suggested that the sampling of this study isn’t completely random. See this post for a very thorough discussion of the sampling in the poll.
Update: Several commenters have asked for the full set of criteria for pathological gaming. Here is the list of questions, along with the percentage of respondents answering “Yes” or “Sometimes”:
Yes responses were scored “1”, and Sometimes was scored “0.5”. A total of 6 points were necessary to qualify as a pathological gamer.
Gentile, D. (2009). Pathological Video-Game Use Among Youth Ages 8 to 18: A National Study Psychological Science, 20 (5), 594-602 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02340.x