Our misplaced obsession with video game addiction

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It seems that with every discussion of video games comes the topic of video game addiction. Quickly images of overweight teenage boys with bad posture, huddled over dim computer screens at all hours of the night comes flooding in. Cue the mothers clutching their pearls.

Some may say this is a reasonable reaction. After all, addiction to anything is never a good thing, and an addiction to video games has been previously associated with particularly bad outcomes: reduced sleep (and consequently, increased risk for obesity), declines in school performance and poorer mental health.

However, some of the top research experts on video game effects, and video addiction specifically, are changing the nature of this conversation and the way we look at video game play as a potentially addictive activity. In a recent editorial published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, Dr. Patrick Markey (Villanova University) and Prof. Dr. Christopher Ferguson (Stetson University) argue that video game addiction is far more “moral panic” than a “true addiction”. Prof. Dr. Christopher Ferguson takes these claims one step further in his recent editorial for U.S. News, where he argues that there is not enough evidence to indicate video game addiction is a separate, distinct phenomenon from any other behavioral addiction such as food, sex, or work addiction.

This is not to say that problematic video game play does not exist, but rather that problematic play or a “video game addiction” is far less of a global phenomenon with devastating consequences than its reputation seems to suggest. In a recent study by Andrew Przybylski and colleagues, the prevalence rate of potential addiction to video games was found to be less than one percent among a sample of over 19,000 participants from the United Kingdom, United States and Germany. Perhaps more interestingly, however, was the lack of impact that this diagnosis of an “addiction” seemed to have on their participants. In fact, the researchers stated that the most notable difference between the “addicted” and “non-addicted” participants in their sample was that the addicted players reported playing more video games.

What does this all mean? An addiction to playing video games in a problematic sense, at least over a short-term, very likely exists. However, the phenomena is extraordinarily rare and not related to significant declines in physical, social or psychological well-being. Should you be concerned if your child, friend, or significant other is playing too much Call of Duty? Maybe. Not because it may indicate an addiction that will have devastating consequences, but rather because it is taking away time they could be doing other things.

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