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Video game "addiction" may be common

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Parents who think their children are “addicted” to their video games may be right in many cases, a new study suggests.

People play computer games during the Taipei Game Show 2009 in Taipei, February 12, 2009. REUTERS/Pichi Chuang

The study, of nearly 1,200 U.S. children and teenagers, found that almost 10 percent showed signs of pathological video-game use -- meeting the definition normally used for gauging pathological gambling.

Recently, researchers have been interested in the potential for young people to develop an unhealthy preoccupation with video games and the Internet. Experts have stopped short of labeling such behavior as addiction, but some studies do suggest that kids can become overly attached to their computers.

In the current study, published in the journal Psychological Science, 8.5 percent of the 8- to 18-year-olds showed at least 6 of 11 signs of problem video-game use.

Some signs included neglecting schoolwork to play video games; failed attempts at cutting down on gaming; playing to “escape” from bad feelings; and feeling the need to play more and more often in order to get the same level of excitement.

“What we mean by pathological use is that something someone is doing -- in this case, playing video games -- is damaging to their functioning,” researcher Douglas Gentile, an assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State University in Ames, said in a news release from the university.

“It’s not simply doing it a lot,” he emphasized. “It has to harm functioning in multiple ways.”

Gentile found that pathological gamers spent twice as much time playing video games as their non-pathological counterparts -- about 25 hours per week, on average. They also tended to get poorer grades and were more likely to report attention problems at school. Whether those problems were a result of their gaming is unknown, however.

According to Gentile, he started studying pathological video-game use largely because he “didn’t believe in it.”

“I assumed that parents called it ‘addiction’ because they didn’t understand why their children spent so much time playing,” he said. By using criteria for measuring pathological gambling, the researcher noted, this study suggests that a “substantial number” of kids have a similar problem with video games.

Still, Gentile said, more studies are needed to fully understand the nature of the problem.

“There is still much we do not know,” he said. “We don’t know who’s most at risk, or whether this is part of a pattern of disorders.”

Pathological gaming could, for example, be a symptom of depression, according to Gentile. In that case, addressing the underlying problem would be vital.

SOURCE: Psychological Science, May 2009.