Ask Dr. Rachel: Video games can play a critical role in social development of kids on the autistic spectrum

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Will video games will make you lazy? Do you have any suggestions for what kinds of games would be great to play together with my young family? Should I let my young child watch me play games that are rated M for Mature?

Every month, our in-house scientific expert, Dr. Rachel Kowert, will address your questions about video games, video game effects and media studies, such as the ones above in her regular column, “Ask Dr. Rachel.”

How can someone tell the difference between video game addiction and simple engagement/enjoyment? -Interested Parent from Seattle

I should start by saying that video game addiction is currently being researched by psychologists around the globe to determine if it is a true behavioral addiction and what the appropriate diagnostic criteria and treatment plans should be. As it stands now, there is not officially a disorder (as recognized by the American Psychological Association) referred to as “Video Game Addiction” (in fact, some researchers are even questioning the validity of establishing such a diagnosis).

That said, a prolonged behavior (such as video game playing) is not considered to be indicative of an addiction until players have lost all control over their playing and it has begun to have a detrimental effect on all aspects of their live for an extended period of time. That means that playing video games would have to be negatively impacting one’s education, work, friendships, hobbies, general health, psychological well-being, etc. for a period of at least three months. So just because someone you know has been on a Final Fantasy XV kick lately, does not mean they are addicted unless their playing has started to severely and negatively impact every aspect of their life for an extended period of time.

Interestingly, new research published in March of this year found that teenagers who play video games more than four hours per day (deemed “heavy” playing in this study) are less likely to display problematic symptoms associated with video game addiction (such as loneliness and social anxiety) if they remained socially engaged with others, either through instant messaging or communicating on social media. For these adolescents, playing four hours of video games a day was simply being “highly engaged” and an extension of their social life. This research highlights the need to maintain the distinction between periods of increased engagement/enjoyment and the signs of a true behavioral addiction. For most players, long gaming sessions are just fun things to do together with family and friends!

Are there special considerations that parents of differently-wired kids (i.e., children on the autistic spectrum) should be aware of when trying to figure out how to navigate the world of video games and their children?

Researchers have noted that children on the autistic spectrum tend to have an increased interest in video games/increased involvement in video gaming and, in particular, online gaming and online gaming communities. This increased interest has been attributed, at least partially, to the social nature of online games because they can accommodate for many of the social struggles that children on the autistic spectrum typically face. Because children with Asperger’s syndrome and autism tend to have higher levels of social anxiety and depression, and can struggle with traditional social situations, the social freedoms provided by online video games can be particularly appealing. For example, because in online games you are visually anonymous (i.e., you can’t see me, you don’t know me), online video games can accommodate for a range of social anxieties relating to social self presentation, such as removing the need to give and receive non verbal cues.

Understanding the social role that video games play in the lives of differently wired kids is something to consider when thinking about the role that video games might be playing in the lives of these kids. For children on the autistic spectrum, video games (and online video games in particular) can play a critical role in their social development and, in turn, contribute to range of social, emotional, and psychological benefits.

Do you have a question you would like to ask Dr. Rachel? Send your question to via twitter to @linacaruso using the hashtag #AskDrRachel and your question could be featured in next month’s column!

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