Understanding Behavioral Addictions
The term “behavioral addiction” refers to a disorder involving compulsive participation in a pleasurable activity—typically not driven by substances—that becomes destructive to one’s professional and social life. It includes excessive internet use, video games, gambling, and sex, just to name a few.
Behavioral addictions share many of the same symptoms as substance use disorders, including:
- Tolerance: Needing more of the activity to achieve the same effect
- Withdrawal: Physical and/or psychological symptoms when you stop participating in this behavior, such as irritability, headaches, cravings, or anxiety
- Impaired control: You spend more time, money, and energy on this activity than you should
- Preoccupation: You think about the activity constantly, even when you’re not doing it.
- Reluctance to quit: Continuing with the habit despite negative consequences
In some cases, people who suffer from behavioral addictions may also be diagnosed with other mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety disorders.
What is Video Game Addiction?
The world population is growing more and more dependent on technology every day. This dependence on technology has led to an increase in the number of people who struggle with addiction to gaming or other forms of technology use (like internet addiction).
Video game addiction is also referred to as gaming addiction or Internet gaming disorder (IGD). What characterizes this type of behavioral addiction is the inability to control one’s gaming behavior—resulting in significant negative consequences in personal, academic and/or professional domains of life.
The prevalence of video game addiction prompted the American Psychiatric Association to consider Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD) as a future diagnostic category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).
The APA further acknowledges that IGD is a serious condition that causes significant impairment in personal, family, and social functioning and warrants further research into its causes and treatment options.
The most recent version of the international statistical classification of diseases and related health problems (ICD-11; World Health Organization 2018) also recognizes Gaming Disorder as a category in its own right.
Defining Video Game Addiction
Video game addiction (gaming addiction or Internet gaming disorder) refers to uncontrolled or compulsive use of computer games or video games, often to the detriment of other daily activities.
There are two main types of gaming:
- Console gaming: Console games are played on gaming consoles such as Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo. These games include first-person shooters (FPS), role-playing games (RPG), and sports games, among others.
- Online gaming: Online games are played over the Internet using a computer or mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet computer. This type of gaming includes massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs).
Online gaming can be more addictive because it has an element of social interaction built into it—you can play with friends worldwide!
It can be tough to determine when playing video games becomes an addiction because there’s no clear definition of how much time is too much time spent gaming.
However, when it comes down to it, if your gaming habits are negatively affecting your relationships (or making you skip out on responsibilities to play), then you need to seek professional help.
How are Video Games Addictive?
Video games are addictive because they are designed to be.
The games are carefully crafted to keep you playing for as long as possible. They’re fun but also challenging enough to make you want to keep trying until you succeed. And when you succeed, a sense of satisfaction makes you want to keep playing.
A key factor to consider in video gaming addiction is the reward system in the brain. When people engage in activities that provide rewards, their brain releases dopamine—a chemical that creates feelings of pleasure.
Video games affect the brain’s pleasure center, the same area activated by drugs and alcohol. When you’re playing a game, your brain releases dopamine, which makes you feel good and motivates you to keep playing.
It’s this chemical reaction that makes video games so addictive in the first place. That’s why it’s so easy to lose track of time while playing!
Several gaming features contribute to video game addiction and problematic gaming behavior:
- Rewards: Video games have a built-in reward system. Players constantly earn points, level up, and unlock new skills or abilities, which keeps them returning for more. The games also allow players to compare their scores on leaderboards.
- Competition: In many games, there is an opposing force that players need to defeat or overcome. The sense of accomplishment that comes with beating a rival keeps players coming back and wanting to improve their last performance or score.
- Discovery: Many games require players to complete specific tasks before advancing to the next level or stage in the game’s storyline; this provides another source of motivation for many gamers because they want to see what comes next or how far they can progress in the game.
- Role-Playing: Video games offer players a chance to act out different roles and identities—giving them an intense sense of pleasure and satisfaction as they explore new experiences or try on different personalities and social skills.
- Player Interactions: Online multiplayer games are often social experiences where players communicate with each other while playing on teams or against each other in competitive matches.
Symptoms of Video Game Addiction
If you or someone you love has been struggling with a video game addiction, it’s essential to recognize the symptoms of this disorder.
Here are some of the most common symptoms that indicate an addiction to video games:
- Repeated efforts to quit or cut back on gaming without success
- Failure to meet important personal or professional obligations because of gaming
- Losing interest in other activities one previously enjoyed due to video games
- Preoccupation with video games to the extent that other activities are neglected
- Tolerance—needing more time on the computer or playing more advanced levels of the game to get the same thrill as before
- Withdrawal symptoms when not playing for some time (e.g., irritability and restlessness)
- Continuing to play even though it causes emotional distress or problems with relationships, responsibilities, or health
- Lying about the amount of time spent playing video games or keeping it secret from family members and friends
- Using video games as an escape instead of dealing with problems in real life such as stress or anxiety
Risks and Consequences of Video Game Addiction
Video game addiction is a significant societal problem that can have serious consequences. If you are concerned that someone you know may be addicted, it’s helpful to understand this condition’s risk factors and consequences.
Gaming Addiction Risk Factors
While anyone can become addicted to video games, some people may be at a higher risk than others. The risk factors for developing video game addiction include:
Video game addiction can affect anyone, but it’s likely higher among children because they are still learning responsibility and don’t fully understand the consequences of their actions.
However, adult gamers (18-34 years) can also be at risk of addiction, as they use video games as a coping mechanism to escape from life stressors. Statista‘s 2021 report shows that this age bracket accounted for 34% of all game players—more than children below 18 years (20%) and seniors (7%).
Men are more likely than women to become addicted to video games. A Stanford University School of Medicine study found that the part of the brain responsible for generating rewarding feelings is more activated in men during video game play than in women.
Mental Health Issues
People suffering from depression, anxiety, or other mental health problems may be more likely to develop an addiction because they’re looking for an escape from unpleasant feelings. They may also use video games to avoid dealing with other problems.
Social Interaction Factors
Social interaction factors like family environment, social anxiety, and self-esteem significantly influence video game addiction.
- Family environment: Children who grow up in homes where both parents work or where there is a lot of stress may be more likely to develop a gaming addiction. In addition, children whose parents do not adequately supervise them or show little interest in their lives are at higher risk for developing an addiction.
- Social anxiety: Individuals who have social anxiety may turn to video games as an escape from their problems or as a way to avoid dealing with others; this can lead to problem gaming or addiction.
- Low self-esteem: Individuals who feel unhappy about themselves may seek out virtual worlds where they can feel accepted by others through their avatars.
Negative Effects of Video Game Addiction
Video games are meant to be an enjoyable pastime. However, for some people, video games become more important than anything else, devastatingly impacting them, their families, and even society.
- Health Problems: People who spend hours each day playing video games often eat poorly or skip meals because they don’t want to interrupt their gaming. This addictive behavior can lead to serious health problems such as obesity and malnutrition, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and hypertension, among other health issues.
- Social Isolation: Video game addiction can lead to social isolation, as the person becomes more interested in the game than their love life or friendships. As a result, it causes relationship problems, affecting both professional and personal life.
- Depression/Anxiety Disorders: People who play video games excessively tend to be depressed or anxious because they cannot connect with others in the real world.
- Financial Difficulties: Video game addicts often spend a lot of money on new games and equipment needed to play games online, which can quickly rack up credit card debt. If a person loses a job due to excessive use of video games, this can further affect financial problems for the addict’s family.
- Sleep Deprivation: Video games are available to play anytime. Some people may find themselves staying up late or waking up early to play before school, work, or other daily responsibilities—leading to fatigue and sleep deprivation.
- Increased Aggression and Violence: Playing violent video games may lead to aggressive behavior, as some children mimic the actions they see during or after playing these games.
- Poor School or Work Performance: Many people with problems controlling their video game use report missing school or work due to gaming habits. As a result, they get poor grades or even get fired from a job because they cannot complete their required tasks.
Diagnosis and Treatment for Video Game Addiction
Video game addiction is a significant problem that can affect anyone, including children and teens. It’s important to diagnose it early enough to seek the proper treatment.
Although research on video game addiction treatment is still in progress, here are some standard treatment options:
- Counseling and Psychotherapy: Counseling can help people understand what motivates them to play video games excessively and how their behavior affects others around them (if at all). Counseling also allows families to discuss their concerns.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy teaches people how to recognize their destructive thoughts and behaviors and replace them with more positive ones that lead to healthier choices and actions.
- Twelve-step programs: These programs provide support from others who understand what the addict is going through, which can be helpful when recovering from an addiction.
Diagnosing Video Game Addiction
While there is no official diagnosis for video game addiction, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has listed criteria for what it calls Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD) in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). If a gamer meets five or more of these criteria over a 12-month period, it may indicate IGD:
- Inability to stop playing a game despite negative consequences
- Preoccupation with gaming; thinking about the previous online activity or anticipating the next online session
- Withdrawal symptoms when not playing online games, such as mood swings, irritability, or depression
- Tolerance—increasing amounts of time needed to achieve desired effects and escalating commitment to gaming activities to achieve the desired excitement
- The failure to reduce or stop playing games despite repeated attempts
- Losing interest in other activities and hobbies as a result of gaming
- Lying about how much time you spend playing games
- Using online games to avoid addressing negative emotions
- Putting a relationship, academic, or work opportunity at risk because of gaming
There are several different types of screening tools that health professionals can use to assess whether an individual is addicted to video games. These screening tools include:
- Self-report questionnaires: These tests are the most common screening form and involve simply asking the person about their gaming habits.
- Interview schedules: These schedules provide a detailed account of the extent of video game use and its effects on other aspects of life.
- Family interviews: Family interviews are also useful for assessing the extent of gaming to determine if addiction is present, as well as assessing the impact on family members.
- Attentional bias test: This test measures how easily someone can shift their attention away from an addiction-related cue to an alternative task or stimulus.
It’s important to remember that no single test can definitively diagnose a person as being addicted. The best way to diagnose video game addiction is by looking at the whole picture and considering all of the factors together.
Gaming Addiction in Adolescents
Parents, are you worried about your child’s gaming habits? Are you concerned that they might have a problem?
If so, you’re not alone. Gaming addiction has become an increasing concern for parents and educators alike. If you are concerned about your child’s gaming habits, it is important to understand what may be happening and how to address the issue.
Warning Signs of Video Game Addiction
While gaming has many benefits, too much can negatively affect the individual. If your child’s gaming habits are interfering with their daily life or spending a lot of time playing video games, you may want to seek professional help.
Here are some warning signs that your child may be addicted to video games:
- They don’t seem to care about anything else as much as they do video games
- Your child complains of headaches and eye strain after playing games for long periods
- They spend most of their time alone in their room or at the computer playing games instead of spending time with family or friends
- They forget about schoolwork, meals, and other important tasks because they’re so focused on their game
- They get angry or often lash out at others verbally or physically when they’re interrupted while playing games
Protecting Your Child from Gaming Addiction
If you’re worried about gaming addiction, you may feel tempted to take away your child’s games or devices. But that’s not always the best approach.
Here are some tips to help prevent your child from becoming addicted to video games:
- Talk to your child about gaming addiction. Games are entertaining, but they also come with risks. It’s important to talk openly with your child about the potential dangers of excessive gaming.
- Encourage alternative activities. If your child spends too much time playing video games, encourage them to find alternative ways to relieve stress or spend time with friends or family instead of screens.
- Monitor screen time and usage limits. Set limits on how long your kids use their devices daily and block certain websites or apps during certain hours.
- Keep video games out of bedrooms. Think about where in your home you want video games located. You want them out of bedrooms so that kids don’t play all night long without getting any sleep.
- Designate family time. Set aside family time where everyone turns off their devices and spends time together doing something other than playing games or watching TV.
- Encourage healthy habits. Make sure your child eats properly and gets plenty of sleep each night.
- Play together! Spend time with your child playing video games together as a family activity.
If you’re concerned about your child or teenager’s gaming habits, don’t hesitate to talk to them. You may even want to seek professional help from a mental health professional if you feel deeper issues are at play.
Get Help for a Video Game Addiction
Gaming can be a great way to vent your frustrations, connect with people, and even be an outlet for self-expression. However, as with everything in life, moderation is key.
If you suspect gaming has become problematic for you or your loved one, don’t hesitate to ask for help.
Visit SAMHSA’s Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator at https://www.samhsa.gov/find-treatment for a list of treatment options in your area, or call 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
Frequently Asked Questions About Video Game Addiction
What are the signs of video game addiction?
The most common signs of video game addiction include:
- Preoccupation with gaming (thinking about past gaming experiences, anticipating the next opportunity to play)
- Withdrawal symptoms (irritability, anxiety, sadness) when unable to play or when playing less than usual
- Frequent use of gaming to escape problems or negative feelings
- Lying about how long you’ve been playing
- Needing to play more of the game to feel satisfied
- Losing interest in other activities that used to be fun and important in your life
How many hours of video games can be considered an addiction?
The number of hours that would qualify as an addiction is subjective. However, it can be problematic when someone plays video games for several hours a day or more (typically between 3-10 hours).
There’s no right or wrong answer here—what matters most is whether or not playing video games negatively affects your life (i.e., negatively affecting your health or relationships).
What causes video game addiction?
It is difficult to pinpoint what causes video game addiction because it still requires further research. However, factors such as age, sex, psychopathological factors (depression, ADHD, or anxiety), or social interaction factors all play a role in whether someone will develop a gaming disorder/video game addiction.
What can gaming addiction lead to?
If left unchecked, gaming addiction can lead to serious problems with your physical health, emotional and financial stability, and social life.
What is the difference between a gaming hobby and being addicted to video games?
When someone has a gaming hobby, they enjoy playing video games as part of their leisure time—but they don’t let it interfere with their school, career, family, or other responsibilities.
However, gaming addicts will continue to play even when they know it is causing harm and will often experience withdrawal symptoms (i.e., irritability and restlessness) if they stop playing.