How Can You Tell if A Teen is Addicted to Video Games?

February 25, 2022

Video games can provide entertainment for people of all ages. Smartphones, tablets, and laptops have removed the need for bulky desktop computers or console devices. Today, video games of all types and formats are accessible on portable devices allowing everyone to play, no matter where they are. Early video games required boot discs, time, and a certain type of computer savvy to run. They definitely were not the most user-friendly, and therefore, video games were not something many teens focused on. 


With the advent of the video game console (Nintendo, Sega, Atari, Xbox, PlayStation, etc.), gaming became easier. Additionally, console gaming introduced entertaining yet largely benign games such as Super Mario Brothers and Tetris, which from a parental perspective, seemed relatively harmless. But times change, and with change comes progress, both positive and negative. 


In recent years, much attention has been paid to the impact of video games. Unfortunately, not all of this attention is positive. Many games have developed into large online communities of people who gather to play the same game in the same online “universe.” Examples such as World of Warcraft, Fortnite, Halo, Overwatch, Roblox, and Call of Duty (among thousands of others) allow people to come together to play regardless of their location in the world. While there may be benefits, many of these games have been accused of causing video game addictions among adolescents, teens, and adults alike. Although many question the existence of video game addictions, others are quick to accuse video games of being responsible for many of the difficulties faced by the next generation of adults.


A Little About Video Game Popularity

Studies indicate up to 60% of Americans play video games. This statistic accounts for Americans of all ages. Examining survey data of adolescents and teens (between ages 12 and 17) shows that percentage increases to more than 95%. An addiction to the social outlet offered by video games created as part of the gaming world impacts the social welfare of millions of gamers of all ages. 


Indeed, it is worth noting that there are positive elements of video gameplay. For some teens, video games allow for social interaction and camaraderie that is impossible (for various reasons) outside of the digital world. Many video games allow players to enjoy anonymity while interacting with others who share the same interest. A prime example of this lies with individuals who struggle with mental health or physical health conditions that inhibit free interaction in social settings. In 2014, Blizzard Entertainment produced a fascinating documentary about this entitled “Looking for Group.” The documentary provides several valuable insights into how video games have opened up a world once closed off for many.


Despite the potential positive factors associated with video games, there are negatives to video gameplay. Some studies suggest as many as 8% of children and teens are addicted to video games. The terms problematic video gameplay or video game addiction describe circumstances where “gaming leads to functional impairment in daily life .”It is further explained as “an excessive and compulsive use of a computer or video games that results in social and/or emotional problems; despite these problems, the gamer is unable to control this excessive use.” 


Recognizing Video Game Addiction in Teens

The 2013 edition (the most recent publication) of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM provides a list of diagnostic criteria for Internet Gaming Addiction which many providers apply to video game addiction. Although many medical and mental health professionals still question if video game addiction is “real,” this list of criteria can help parents, friends, and providers understand what reliance on video games may look like. Understanding how the symptoms of video game addiction may present can help parents and guardians encourage their teens to seek treatment to overcome their dependency on gaming at a teen-focused treatment center like Hillcrest in Los Angeles, CA.


First, it is essential to note that one or more of the symptoms listed in the DSM must be present for one year or longer to meet the diagnostic criteria for “addiction.” The DSM provides nine specific measures that could suggest your teen struggles with a video game addiction. For your teen to meet the criteria for diagnosis, they must present five or more symptoms. It is also important to note that not everyone who plays video games frequently has a problem with gaming addiction. Many mental health professionals agree that the percentage of players who meet the criteria listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders is lower than many might believe. It is estimated to be around 10% of all gamers, regardless of age. It is also more common in boys or men than in girls or women.


The symptoms of video game addiction or Internet gaming addiction mimic many other behavioral addictions. For example, if your teen thinks about gaming consistently, is irritable or anxious when they cannot play, requires more and more time immersed in the video game environment to feel good, or cannot reduce their playtime even if they try, it may be a cause for concern. Other potential symptoms include wanting to play instead of participating in other hobbies they once enjoyed, new or worsening difficulties at school, playing regardless of no challenges related to video games, lying to loved ones about how much time they spend playing, or using gaming to reduce stress for anxiety associated with bad moods or negative emotions.


The Physical and Emotional Impacts of Video Game Addiction

If you are concerned about your teen and their level of video gameplay, consider the following questions. Does their video gaming get in the way of essential responsibilities such as school or extracurricular activities? Is video gaming influencing or hurting their personal or family relationships? Is gaming affecting attendance or performance at school? Is your teen using video games to avoid or reduce the severity of symptoms related to an underlying mental or medical health condition?


Like many other addictions, video game addiction can lead to several medical and mental health impacts. First, someone with an addiction to or dependency on video games is likely to experience adverse mental health impacts. Common examples include anxiety, depression, and difficulties with family relationships. Anxiety sometimes occurs when the gamer is unable to complete a level, suffers defeat in a challenging task, or cannot play as long for when they want to. Teen gamers may also experience depression for similar reasons. While there are positive aspects to the online social community of gamers, certain harmful mental health impacts do occur for teens who thrive solely in an online world. 


Video game addiction can also lead to various physical health effects on individuals who spend too much time behind a screen. A primary effect is on physical health. Excessive video gameplay often leads to a largely sedentary lifestyle (typically) devoid of physical activity and exercise. Continuing in this manner can lead to weight gain, poor nutrition, poor posture, and problems with one’s back or neck. Some adolescents and teens will struggle to develop and maintain “in-person” relationships. 


You may also notice your teen struggling to concentrate or pay attention to other tasks, including school work, as the desire to engage in video gameplay is stronger than the desire to fulfill other obligations. In some cases, although far less common, repeated screen time exposure, especially to loud noises and bright lights, can cause or exacerbate seizures in those who are prone to them or who have a diagnosed seizure disorder. Some individuals may even develop carpal tunnel and wrist or hand issues from frequent use of computer keyboards or remote controls. 


Treatment for Video Game Addiction

As previously noted, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders or DSM lists diagnostic criteria for Internet Gaming Addiction. However, an official diagnosis for “video game addiction” has yet to be regarded as a formal diagnosis in the manual. Medical and mental health professionals turn to the DSM as a primary diagnostic guide for mental health treatment. Unfortunately, because video game addiction is not a listed diagnosis, there is a limited body of research providing support and guidance for specific treatment models. But, this does not mean a teen who struggles with video game addiction cannot seek help to overcome their symptoms.


Because video game addiction presents with similar symptoms to other addictive behaviors, such as gambling addictions, similar treatments have shown to be successful. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and 12-step recovery programs are commonly used to help teens understand the root causes behind addictive behaviors. Once this understanding is developed, it is possible to learn healthier and safer ways to manage behaviors and triggers that often lead to harmful behaviors. 


The goal of cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT is to help your teen examine their behavior to better understand why they happen. As treatment progresses, your teen will be encouraged to learn new ways to still play video games but in a healthier, less invasive way. During therapy, your teen will work with your therapist to understand valuable coping mechanisms such as play limitations or eliminating gaming entirely. Together with their therapist, your teen will work to set healthy and attainable goals and practice ways to reach those goals while still (potentially) using video games as an outlet for communication and pleasure in a more limited way.


If you’re a parent who’s concerned about your teen’s addiction to video gaming, contact us at Hillcrest today. Without treatment, continued excessive video gameplay may lead to a range of physical and mental health impacts that can have a lasting effect on your teen’s future. The team here at Hillcrest is ready to help your family learn more about how our programs can help your teen overcome problematic video game addiction in a healthy and supported environment.

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