Photo by Flickr user Rebecca Pollard.
In a new study from the American Academy of Pediatrics, researchers say they’ve found a correlation between kids who are “addicted” to video games and other issues, such as being socially awkward and suffering from depression. A variety of news outlets have reported on the findings, including this piece from Reuters.
In the 2-year study of more than 3,000 school children in Singapore, researchers found nearly one in ten were video game “addicts,” and most were stuck with the problem.
While these kids were more likely to have behavioral problems to begin with, excessive gaming appeared to cause additional mental woes.
“When children became addicted, their depression, anxiety, and social phobias got worse, and their grades dropped,” said Douglas A. Gentile, who runs the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University in Ames and worked on the study.
“When they stopped being addicted, their depression, anxiety, and social phobias got better.”
According to the study itself, video-game addiction can be measured similarly to other kinds of addiction — in fact, researchers used the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual parameters for gambling addiction to measure behavior they considered addictive among gamers. Interestingly, it takes a certain amount of pre-existing psychological stuff to make someone more prone to video-game addiction: “Youths who are more impulsive, have lower social competence and empathy, and have poorer emotional regulation skills are more likely to become pathological gamers.” In other words, too much gaming doesn’t cause these problems. It’s the other way around.
Researchers also found that “although children who are depressed may retreat into gaming, the gaming increases the depression, and vice versa.” Actually, the study doesn’t show — for certain — that the gaming itself caused the increase in depression; it only shows that kids got more depressed during the same period they were also addicted to video games. Isn’t it possible that the trappings of addiction were the more likely culprit than the gaming itself? Maybe if these kids were baking cookies 5 hours a day, or doing homework 5 hours a day, or playing Candyland 5 hours a day, we’d see the same results. Has anyone studied those activities?
There’s no evidence here that the games themselves exacerbated these kids’ mental state. Given that they were already emotionally troubled before they came to video games, it’s entirely possible that these kids would have developed depression anyway. The fact that those who quit being addicted to video games felt better emotionally suggests that they were making overall psychological improvements, not just in the realm of gaming, and that seems like it would lift depression as well.
When journalists report on studies like these, they often play up the sexiest angle they can. They know, for example, parents are worried about their kids, so a study like this can catch parents’ eyes and get them reading. Reuters decided to top off its piece with the headline, “Do video games fuel mental health problems?” Instead of exploring the correlation between game addiction and depression, the headline implies that game addiction is causing it. These are not the same thing and it’s dangerous to mix them up.
Even Gentile, in a similar study he conducted in 2009, makes this danger abundantly clear in his “discussion” section:
The primary limitation of this study is its correlational nature. It does not provide evidence for the possible causal relations among the variables studied. It is certainly possible that pathological gaming causes poor school performance, and so forth, but it is equally likely that children who have trouble at school seek to play games to experience feelings of mastery, or that attention problems cause both poor school performance and an attraction to games. (Emphasis mine.)
In other words, the games may be providing a refuge for kids who are struggling in school, both socially and academically.
In college I heard this phrase repeatedly: correlation is not causation. More reporters, and more of their readers, need to keep this in mind.
There are a couple of other things worth noting about the Gentile/AAP study in the news this week. One is that Gentile is a researcher who focuses exclusively on media influences and children. Another is that, to date, not one of Gentile’s studies has found media to have a beneficial influence on kids, which implies a fairly strong bias in his work. A third is that the AAP, in 2000, issued a statement on violent media and youth claiming that such media desensitizes children to violence and “may lead to real-life violence,” claims which have since been disproven. It’s worth it to take their latest findings with a grain of salt, as well.
Gamers, did any of you get to a point where you felt like you were addicted to gaming? Were you able to cut back or even stop? While you were in your addictive phase, did you become depressed? Did you feel like gaming was the cause of your depression — and if not, what was the cause? Did cutting back on gaming improve your mood?
Parents, have you seen anything in your game-playing teens to suggest Gentile’s findings are accurate? Has your teen ever become addicted to video games? If so, how did you handle it?