By Lori Enomoto

It starts innocently enough. A child spends time learning how to play video games, use the controller and navigate to different areas of a game. Before long, the child receives the positive gratification of progressing to higher levels of the game. As they continue to win, they also continue to devote more and more time to improving their skill. The child challenges their friends to play, and may even play with people on the Internet. In fact, parents are often proud of their children’s skill at video games – at first.

And from the parent’s point of view, there’s an added benefit to a child spending so much time playing games at the computer or gaming console: video games happen to be a great “babysitter” for kids who may otherwise have trouble sitting still. What’s more, video games certainly seem to have some redeeming value, as the child playing them is actively engaged, much more so than when passively watching television.

That’s exactly why a compulsive gaming addiction is so insidious. Video game addiction is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, something that takes hold before parents realize that it has become a problem. You may need help to determine if your child simply spends a lot of time at an activity they love, or if it’s become a clinical impulse control disorder. It’s always wise to consult a professional, but read on to learn more about warning signs and problems associated with video game addiction.

Gambling with a Gaming Addiction

To begin to understand the dangers of video game addiction, try shifting how you think about gaming by putting it in the same category as a word that’s very close to “gaming” – gambling. Then think about some of the warning signs of gambling addiction, and ask yourself if your child is showing these same characteristics:

• Compulsive need to spend more and more time engaged in the activity
• Irritability or extreme anxiety when deprived of the activity

When you try to tear your child away from the video game console, they may come up with a whole range of excuses for why they need to play video games at that precise moment, and may beg or negotiate for more time – or they may simply ignore you. After all, they’re in a different world, their private gaming world, and it’s one they’re beginning to prefer to the real one that the rest of the family lives in. 

Repetitive Violence

The violence in video games is something that parents have rationalized away in the same way that they’ve rationalized it away for television.

In some of the more violent video games, a skilled gamer may “kill” up to 10 people every five minutes, or 120 people an hour. Every 30 seconds or so, that child has taken an action that may lead to an imaginary kill, potentially taking five shots to kill an opponent.

One of the amazing advances of video games is how realistic they are. The characters and settings look real. Kids talk on headphones with other people in the heat of the battle. In fact, it’s so real, it can actually be frightening.

You may think that the violence in video games is just this generation’s version of the games parents play-acted out in their youth: cowboys and Indians, or the violent end of famous gangsters like Bonnie and Clyde. However, there’s a major difference: Play-acting involves the imagination and is not addictive in the same way that repetitive-motion video games are.

The Opportunity Cost of Video Game Addiction

The term “opportunity cost” is an economic term used to measure what’s lost when your time and attention are taken from one activity and focused instead on another. So, let’s take a closer look at the opportunity cost of gaming.

Here are some typical activities that may fall by the wayside when a child becomes over-involved in video games:

• Homework
• Reading
• Sports
• Outdoor activities
• Developing friendships

The longer you let a video game addiction go uncurtailed, the further behind your child may fall in any of the above categories. At first, gaming may only result in minor changes in calibration for the above activities; however, as time goes on, the effect snowballs. Grades may start to drop a little in response to less time and attention, but as your child develops a weakened foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic, their grades will continue to fall since they have failed to master the basics. As your child falls further behind, they start to assume that they are not smart and accept that they get low grades.

A good rule of thumb is that a child between the ages of 5 and 7 should read for at least 30 minutes a day, and as they get older they should be reading even more. Reading is considered critical for developing spelling, comprehension, vocabulary and writing skills, so if reduced reading time is an opportunity cost of time spent playing video games, this should be taken seriously.

In addition to academics, physical activity often falls victim to excessive gaming. Gaming is a sedentary activity. The Wii game platform offers some exercise, as the gamer mimics the physical actions of sports like bowling and tennis, but the most Xbox 360 and PlayStation offer in the way of physical exercise is practice in eye-hand coordination.

Given a choice between gaming and sports, many children will choose gaming. If a child delays participation in sports, it may curtail their future participation and success in this area.

Children are starting serious sports training at a much younger age than the last generation. Many a parent will tell you that they didn’t start in certain sports until they were 10, 11 or 12, so they often don’t realize that their child is falling behind in development in this area.

If a child has not participated in sports at a young age, even if they want to start sports when they’re “older,” they begin to feel like it’s too late since their schoolmates are more advanced than they are. It’s a domino effect. The child doesn’t participate because they feel that they are behind, and therefore they don’t try out for teams and lose confidence in their ability to succeed at sports. The eye-hand coordination that they’ve developed while playing video games won’t get them far on the basketball court, soccer field or baseball diamond.

To compound matters, it’s not uncommon for a sedentary child to develop weight problems. In fact, in the United States, one in every three children is considered overweight or obese, and over the last 20 years, this statistic has risen at an alarming rate.

Delayed Socialization

Some gamers are self-declared “geeks;” others think it’s “cool” to excel at video games and have achieved a certain status due to their gaming ability. Still others are loners. They enjoy holing up in their bedrooms and diving into their fantasy world for hours on end.

“Play dates” with obsessive gamers may consist of a series of violent video game battles, or video game sports match-ups. This can continue for hours, with the gamers forgetting about eating, sleeping or any of the other activities of daily life.

Even with the hours gamers may spend playing each other, or on headsets playing each other, they are not learning basic social skills. They are missing out on normal social development and interactions. 

Put It Away and See What Happens

If you think your child spends too much time gaming, try a simple experiment: Put the game console away. If your child is finding ways to play anyway, gaming may have turned from an amusement to an addiction that needs your attention. Wilderness therapy programs and residential treatment centers for teens are excellent forms of treatment for video game addiction.