The rise of online gaming via MMORPGs, Facebook and video game consoles could be putting kids' brain development at risk and may also be causing serious social disorders, according to new scientific research. At a recent Australian Science Media Centre briefing, child psychiatrist Dr. Philip Tam explained the chief causes of so-called "Internet gaming disorder" along with the warning signs that parents should look out for.
Kid gaming picture from Shutterstock
Philip Tam is a Sydney-based child and adolescent psychiatrist who specialises in internet- and gaming-addiction in young people. Tam said that around 10 percent of youths are at risk of developing online gaming addiction, while some 2-4 percent already fulfill the criteria. The condition can lead youths to become socially withdrawn and frequently irritable, with school attendance and performance both suffering significantly.
According to Tam, online gaming can be especially addictive to teenagers. This is because video game mechanics tap into the needs and wants of the "generation wired" mindset which has been partially shaped by the commercial priming they have grown up with:
Teenagers have sized on [online gaming] because it gives them a sense of connection to other people, a sense of agency and a sense of reward. There is no other technology I can think of in human society where the effort-to-reward ratio is so low...It also gives them instant feedback; they get congratulations and they know that other people are paying attention.
The positive emotions associated with being "in the zone" and overcoming obstacles can also contribute to gaming addiction, Tam claimed. The adrenaline-fueled frustration or "fun failure" of near-misses also plays a role in gaming addiction that is similar to gambling.
"These are the kind of things that brain studies have shown to be immensely rewarding and pleasurable to the brain."
According to Tam, there are a variety of early warning signs that parents can look out for which indicate when a teen has moved from "normal gaming" to a clinical disorder. This can include becoming socially withdrawn (to the point of not coming down to dinner), a drop in school grades and increased irritability -- especially when being told to get off the console/computer.
"In some extreme cases of full blown addiction, there's a decline in major functioning: they're coming to school late of not going to school at all," Tam said. "Some of these teenagers have dropped out of school and have a completely reversed wake cycle; it's 5am by the time they finish gaming."
One of Tam's patients claimed that he gamed non-stop for over 60 hours.
Tam said that some preventative measures parents could take include signing up a contract of agreed playtime and avoiding the habit of becoming an "enabler" (e.g. -- buying the latest games and imposing no ground rules.)
So should parents be worried about their kids' gaming habits? That all depends on how seriously you take the fledgling research on the topic. By Tam's own admission, Internet gaming disorder is still in the "research category", which means it is not yet recognised as a genuine mental health disorder.
"There a lot of different treatments coming out [but] this is a very new area -- a lot of what I'm saying today might well be outdated in five or ten year's time."
Tam also acknowledged that it was usually an end-point behavior when there are a lot of other underlying problems, such as anxiety, depression and ADHD.