Hazardous Gaming

How much is too much? This is the million dollar question.  

Online gaming represents one of the biggest and fastest growing industries globally with over 900 million gamers but does increased exposure mean increased risk? And what are the risks or implications?

Understanding this space can be a minefield for parents as the internet provides a medium for accessing an unlimited number of apps, website and games that are often completely unmonitored.

We also grapple with conflicting messages about video games actually improving children’s intellectual and social skills, with more opportunities to connect. The attention on gaming of late has been both positive and negative. Added to which the research world is so far behind what all these different games can do, it’s difficult to conduct studies to figure out what’s best for kids, before the technologies change again. While it is true that gaming doesn’t pose a threat for everyone that picks up a control, the World Health Organisation recently added ‘Gaming Disorder’ to the 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases. They define gaming disorder as a pattern of gaming behavior (“digital-gaming” or “video-gaming”) characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.’

Many games can improve your child’s coordination, problem-solving and multi-tasking skills, as well as help build social skills through online interactivity with other players. But it is also important to understand the challenges - what might go wrong and what could have a negative impact on your child. Children are vulnerable to the risk of online grooming and social isolation, have access to harmful content, and can even suffer from long-term health implications.

Safe to say the online world is here to stay and, in some respects, an essential part of our lives – so what are some strategies that could assist us in equipping young people to navigate the online world in a safe way?

To gain some useful insights and constructive takeaways for concerned parents we recently attended a seminar presented by former gaming addict and now registered psychotherapist and founder of NetAddiction NZ, James Driver, and spoke with Dr Wayne Warburton. Dr Warburton is an Associate Professor of developmental psychology at Macquarie University and is also a registered psychologist. He has a strong research interest in the fields of aggressive behaviour, media psychology and parenting. Together with German researchers he devised a three-month program to help the minority of teenagers who are gaming excessively to try to take control of their gaming habits and their lives. Australian Story followed teenagers who embarked on this program – an episode called Game Changer.

A Macquarie University study of about 1000 Australian teenagers has found 2.8 per cent were affected by Internet Gaming Disorder, which has been included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) since 2013.

Professor Wayne Warburton, says to meet the criteria for Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD), video-game use must be having serious impacts across multiple areas of a young person’s life, such as schoolwork, relationships and mental health.

Like every problem it happens on a spectrum, where arbitrary lines appear on that continuum when we start to become concerned. Dr Warburton describes some of the warning signs below.

“the point or level that we would think of as problematic screen use or problematic gaming is typically when the amount of time you spend gaming has significant negative impact on one important area of your life - such as your schooling, your relationships, your mental health, your physical health…You are thinking about it all the time… If you're feeling stressed or you have negative feelings, it makes you feel better… and you can't control how much time is being spent doing it even though it's having a negative impact on your life…It often comes with withdrawal symptoms such as being irritable, aggressive and anxious…every teenager I’ve come across with a serious problem will tell you it’s their happy place”

You would assume that the age most vulnerable to being affected would be high school students. We were surprised to learn that some of Dr Warburton’s most important research is comparing primary school vs high school aged children and they are seeing increasing problems in children in years 4-6, which is as young as 10.

“we think it's really important to get kids early because our own research tends to suggest that it's much easier to do something sooner rather than later and it's going to have less of an impact in primary school. Once you make that transition to high school and to puberty then you start to see bigger impacts and it's more difficult to get on top of”

Perhaps more alarming are the effects excessive gaming can have on the growing brain. We think of addictions in terms of changes to the way the brain works and the way the brain processes rewards. What we know is that in children with screen addiction, you see the same sort of changes in the brain that you would see in other addictions such as substances or with other behavioural addictions like problem gambling. The brain is also a use or lose organ, and focus, attention, complex problem solving, thinking through the consequences, managing emotions, controlling impulses - all of those higher functions are essentially in the frontal parts of the brain. This develops last and is first compromised. What we see with excessive screen use is a loss of grey matter in in those parts of the brain, that essentially comes through lack of use. If you're doing something repetitive or that's not requiring much conscious effort, you're mostly on automatic pilot. So instead of growing, it's shrinking.

“There are a number of factors that put people at risk… The first one is what we call executive dysfunction, which essentially people whose prefrontal cortex and frontal lobes aren't quite as effective as others. This may mean kids who can’t focus as well or lack attention or good impulse or self control… then there are groups that already have some level of dysfunction being that they are neurodiverse…kids with ADHD or autism spectrum, for example, have some level of executive dysfunction. But we also see lots of kids without any sort of diagnosis. These kids are typically socially isolated with low self esteem and have limited control over the world around them. Online they have complete control over their environment… when you have reduced capacity to manage your behaviour then that seems to be the perfect storm… The third factor is a less than optimal home environment, but clearly that feeds into both of those things and it doesn't help the child who is having difficulty with executive functions…and it doesn't feed very well into meeting that child's needs”

James Driver speaks to the main reasons problems develop in his seminar “Game Over” as psychological drivers where technology can meet many psychological needs allowing us to experience a sense of purpose, direction and meaning that can be difficult to replicate offline, the dopamine response – meaning anything we do that is pleasurable or rewarding will create a dopamine response, and the coercive design. When gaming becomes the only or primary outlet for meeting a psychological need such as validation, escape, a sense of belonging or control, other aspects of a person’s life may suffer and problems can develop. The more technology is used to meet a particular need or feel a certain way, the harder it becomes to get the same feeling from other things. There's no direct correlation between the amount of time spent and whether it's a problem. And being able to tell the difference in whether the relationship is positive or negative is not necessarily about “how much,” it’s about how and why, and the impact on the individual.

In Dr Warburton’s research he found there were plenty of kids who spent excessive amounts of time gaming but had a balanced life and could manage everything else around it.  There's quite a lot of evidence that suggests around two to three hours a day is an amount that doesn't have much potential for a problem and yet someone could be on the screen 3 or 4 hours a day and everything's falling apart for them.

How Can You Help?

  • As with any problem or addiction, a person has to reach the point of recognising the problem for themselves
  • However, we can help them recognise this and prepare them for making that change when they are ready
  • It’s crucial that they know that support and alternatives are available when they are ready to seek these things

Ways You Can Help

  • Developing Understanding. If we can understand what needs a person is meeting through their technology use, then we will know what alternatives to consider, and what factors in their life might be making technology appealing. To understand we need to be curious and open. Ask open ended questions and use reflective listening. 
  • Education. This includes educating our youth on psychological hooks used by games, making conscious decisions about limiting time, paying attention to their own emotional state so they can understand how it drives behaviour or affects their mood, and regulating their own emotions without technology use. Parents need to be aware of their own technology use on development and attachment, be aware of balance and importance of physical, creative and exploratory play and acknowledge the importance of their role in managing healthy technology use and setting age-appropriate boundaries.
  • Addressing Underlying Issues. Do they lack means support or encouragement to engage in more meaningful activities, are situations such as bullying, home troubles  or factors limiting performance at school etc leading them to feel powerless, lacking strong peer relationships outside of gaming, stresses or mental health issues. 
  • Modelling appropriate technology use. Model ways to find meaning and purpose in life and ways to experience competence. Model ways to connect with others and have good social relationships as well as ways to manage difficult feelings and stress that doesn’t involve technology.
  • Supporting Alternatives. Helping them engage in positive activities and build and repair relationships. Support them to have patience to develop competency in other areas and help them learn other ways to manage difficult feelings and experiences. We also need to help them develop autonomy and independence in their lives. 
  • Setting Appropriate Limits. These can be based on time, getting other things done or behaviour for example. Effective limits need to be discussed or even negotiated openly. They need to be explained and have clearly defined consequences and consistently enforced without judgement or punishment. Examples could be no devices in rooms or not after 8pm, no devices during meals or until homework is complete, discuss and agree upon an age-appropriate time budget and confiscate if budget is exhausted, one device free day per week/month.
  • Supporting Healthy Use. Ensure regular breaks from technology even if only a few minutes and learn about the games they are using enough to understand the basics and understand the risks. Regularly check in and have conversations about what they are doing, how they feel about it and the impact it has on them.

Think of a healthy media diet as being like a healthy food diet – it’s about moderation and good choices. Less mindless, violent or antisocial stuff and more active, social and creative activities. Make a family healthy media plan and explain to your kids that the media is like food and what you want is to get the best from it and avoid the pitfalls of it being in control. Instil in your kids from a young age the strength and resilience and knowledge that they are the ones in control, and they're the ones who can manage it themselves. In busy working households it can be hard to find the time to manage media consumption, but it is vital. We need to shift our mindsets, change our priorities and model appropriate behaviours. Most importantly we need to start the conversation with our families around the dinner table. 

In the words of Dr Warburton

“The online world may be easier but one of the basic secrets that nobody really wants to talk about, is that people prefer the stuff that happens in the real world”

Advice and support

If you would like further advice and support on how best to help someone you care about, contact our Step Together helpline workers.

Last updated:

03 Jan 2024

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