Few teens show signs of "problem" video-gaming

Based on a lengthy survey of just over 4,000 Connecticut high school students, the analysis found that among those who played video or computer games, just 5 percent reported signs of “problem” gaming -- including having an irresistible urge to play, trying and failing to cut down on gaming, and feelings of tension that could only be relieved by playing. Those behaviors are similar to red flags used in diagnosing addictions to alcohol, drugs and gambling.

On the other hand, researchers found, among the 95 percent of gamers who did not fall into the “problem” category, there was little evidence that the hobby was related to any negative health or academic effects. Kids who played video games were no more likely than their peers to report drinking or using drugs, and boys who gamed were less likely than other boys to smoke.

An exception among girls was that those who played video games were more likely to admit to getting into serious fights or carrying a weapon. But the vast majority of girls in the study reported neither behavior; 4 percent said they’d gotten into a serious fight in the past year, and 8 percent said they’d carried a weapon.

The findings, reported in the journal Pediatrics, suggest that for most teens, video gaming is just part of normal behavior. The results of some past studies have led people to believe that video games may cause aggressive behavior in teenagers, Dr. Rani A. Desai, the lead researcher on the current study, told Reuters Health in an e-mail. But “much careful research, and this study as well, do not support this,” she said. For the study, Desai and her colleagues at Yale University School of Medicine surveyed 4,028 students about gaming and various health-related behaviors.

Overall, 76 percent of the boys and 29 percent of the girls said they played video or computer games. Among gamers, 6 percent of boys and 3 percent of girls reported signs of problem gaming. In contrast to gaming in general, problem gaming was related to higher risks of smoking, depression, drug use and fighting among boys and girls. Among kids who regularly smoked, for instance, 8 percent were problem gamers, versus 4 percent among teens who said they had never smoked. But whether problem gaming helped cause those other problems, or was a result of them or simply co-existed with them is not clear, according to the researchers.

“Correlation does not equal causation,” Desai said. “Kids who smoke might also be more likely to develop a gaming problem -- not the other way around. We can’t tell from these data.” The bottom line, according to Desai’s team, is that the rate of problem gaming among teens is “low but not insignificant.” While the study sample consisted only of high schools in one state, Desai noted that the 5 percent rate of problem gaming seen in the students is consistent with reported rates of a number of compulsive disorders.

And there is little reason to believe that Connecticut high schoolers would have significantly different gaming habits from teenagers in other states, she added. There are certain signs of problem gaming parents can look for, according to Desai. The amount of time a teenager spends playing video games is not, by itself, a definitive signal, she said. “But if a teen is neglecting school work, social activities that are not gaming-related or not eating or sleeping in order to game, that is cause for concern,” she added.

Parents worried about their kids’ gaming can start by bringing it up with their pediatrician, Desai said. If necessary, the pediatrician can refer them to a mental health professional.

SOURCE: Pediatrics, online November 15, 2010.