The Latest Research on Teenage Video Game Addiction

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Since social distancing began last March, the rate of teenage video game addiction has been steadily rising. Even before the pandemic, teens were playing video games for hours each day. But in 2020, those numbers skyrocketed, with at least 70 percent of kids under 18 on consoles. With remote schooling and limited activities outside the home, teens are using gaming for distraction and to combat loneliness and isolation.

Moreover, while both genders suffer from what’s known as internet gaming disorder, boys are almost twice as likely to experience this type of addiction. That’s why mental health experts are hearing from a growing number of parents who tell them, “My son is addicted to video games.”

Video Game Addiction Statistics

According to video game addiction statistics, as many as 12 percent of boys and 7 percent of girls are addicted to gaming. Some research shows even higher numbers: A study published this month in the journal Addictive Behaviors found that among 3,000 students, 19 percent of males were classified as having gaming disorder vs. 7.8 percent of females. And those numbers are likely to increase as the industry gains even more ground.

In the United States, spending on video games grew by 30 percent in the second quarter of 2020, to a record $11.6 billion. Worldwide, gaming industry revenue is expected to reach $180 billion in 2021, with an estimated 2.5 billion people playing around the globe. That will mean even more kids addicted to video games like Fortnite, Minecraft, Fall Guys, and Animal Crossing, which are among the most popular video games for teens.

What Is Teenage Video Game Addiction?

Teenage video game addiction works the same way as other so-called process addictions. Process addictions involve behaviors—such as shopping or exercising—that have the same effect on the brain as alcohol or drugs. They activate the brain’s reward center, releasing the “feel-good” chemical dopamine. This creates a craving for the behavior and a compulsion to continue it. Therefore, kids addicted to video games feel an uncontrollable urge to continue playing. 

In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized the severity of teenage video game addiction by classifying gaming disorder as a diagnosable mental health condition. Consequently, this disorder is included in the 11th edition of WHO’s International Classification of Diseases Manual. The WHO lists three main criteria for the diagnosis of gaming disorder:

  • An inability to control the urge to play video games
  • The feeling that gaming is more important than any other activity
  • Continuing to play video games despite the negative consequences of the behavior on relationships, academic performance, and/or work.

Warning Signs of Video Game Addiction

In addition to the WHO’s three primary criteria, the American Psychological Association (APA) specifies other warning signs that may indicate teenage video game addiction. According to the APA, a teen needs to experience at least five of the following nine criteria over a 12-month period to be classified with internet gaming disorder:

  • Preoccupation with gaming
  • Withdrawal symptoms like irritability and anxiety when deprived of video games
  • Increased tolerance—the ability and need to spend more and more time gaming
  • Loss of interest in other activities
  • Deceiving parents about the amount of time they spend gaming
  • Loss of educational opportunities
  • Using gaming to escape or relieve anxiety, guilt, or other negative emotions
  • Inability to control the frequency and length of their playing
  • Not limiting video game time even though it’s creating psychological problems.

Furthermore, a gaming disorder test should take into account a teen’s general mood and self-care habits. Are they acting irritable, anxious, or depressed? Is their grooming deteriorating? Are they forgetting to eat, or eating poorly, as a result of constant gaming? Does your daughter miss sleep due to staying up late playing video games? Does your son stay in his room all day gaming? If the answer to one or more of those questions is yes, video game addiction treatment may be necessary.

Causes of Video Game Addiction

As a result of the pandemic, kids’ screen time has multiplied. In 2020, nearly half of children and teens were spending more than six hours a day online. That’s an increase of 500 percent from 2019, according to a ParentsTogether survey. This increased exposure to digital media, including video games, can trigger gaming disorder.

But the causes of video game addiction go deeper than how much time kids spend playing. There are underlying psychological factors as well. Research shows a correlation between teenage video game addiction and the prevalence of depression and anxiety. Studies have also found that adolescents with an insecure attachment to parents are more prone to internet addiction, including gaming.

Hence, teens use excessive online gaming as a coping strategy for life problems. Video games serve as a form of escape and a way to numb distress and discomfort. It’s no surprise, then, that gaming has been a go-to for people of all ages during the pandemic. But teens are particularly vulnerable to video game addiction due to their high levels of collective trauma and their still-maturing brains.

Why Boys Are More Likely to Have Gaming Disorder

Research consistently shows that male adolescents are more likely than female teens to develop internet gaming disorder (IGD). In the study published this month, researchers found a relationship between gaming disorder and a higher level of maladaptive cognitions in adolescent males. Maladaptive cognitions refer to unhealthy thinking patterns regarding self-expectations and beliefs. For example, teen boys in the study overvalued the rewards of gaming, and were unwilling to stop playing if they hadn’t completed certain gaming tasks.

Other studies have shown that gender differences in the brain may predict the increased risk for males of developing teenage video game addiction. MRI scans show that gaming appears to create more craving-related activity in the male brain, consistent with findings regarding substance and gambling addictions. Scans also showed that males had higher sensitivity to rewards and less sensitivity to losses than females, which might help account for their tendency to continue playing over long periods of time.

In addition, teen boys are more likely to turn to maladaptive coping mechanisms when struggling with mental health issues. Research shows that males feel greater shame about experiencing mental health symptoms, and internalize the idea that men should not show weakness or vulnerability. Therefore, they’re less apt to ask for help or talk about what they’re feeling. In addition, boys typically have lower “mental health literacy”— the ability to recognize, manage and prevent mental health symptoms. So they self-medicate their distress and difficult emotions instead, with behaviors such as gaming and substance abuse.

The Negative Effects of Video Game Addiction

Along with setting up the conditions for addiction, excessive gaming puts teens’ nervous systems into a constant state of overstimulation and hyperarousal. In this state, the body produces increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Hence, teenage video gaming addiction can actually change the brain over time. In one study, young adults with gaming disorder showed lower volumes of gray and white brain matter, associated with poor decision-making, impulse control, and emotion regulation. Furthermore, teens who engage in pathological video gaming are at higher risk of substance abuse disorder, because teenage video game addiction primes the brain for other types of addiction.

The chronic stress caused by hyperarousal is coupled with physical issues produced by the sedentary nature of gaming. As a result, the negative effects of video game addiction include the following:

  • Difficulty paying attention and controlling impulses
  • Poor emotion management
  • Decreased levels of compassion, creativity, and interest in learning
  • Depression, irritability, and anxiety
  • Lowered immune function caused by chronic stress
  • Unhealthy diet and weight
  • Sleep deprivation, insomnia, and circadian rhythm disorders
  • Becoming desensitized to violence
  • Enhanced risk of ADHD
  • Increased hostility, particularly in teens who have pre-existing personality traits like aggression and indifference to others—making them more susceptible to violent media, research shows.

The largest study ever done on teenage video game addiction and the effects of video game addiction was published in 2020. Researcher Sarah M. Coyne and her team followed 385 adolescents over six years. During this time, 10 percent of gamers exhibited pathological video gaming behavior that got worse over the years. Furthermore, as they aged into young adulthood, the participants in this category showed higher levels of depression, anxiety, aggression, and problematic cell phone use. Confirming previous research, most of the young people in this group were male. In addition, they had lower levels of prosocial behaviors—behaviors enacted with the intention to benefit others.

“A host of research indicates that video games can become pathological and destructive to family life. Thus, it is important for families to recognize when video games are harmless entertainment and when they become a very real problem.”

—Video game researcher Sarah Coyne

How Parents Can Help Prevent Teenage Video Game Addiction

Limiting video game time seems like an obvious approach to preventing gaming disorder. However, research shows that setting rules about gaming tends to backfire when the limitations are too restrictive and don’t allow kids autonomy in their decision-making. Therefore, it’s more productive for families to create a contract together that teens are willing to abide by. In addition, because boys’ reward-seeking brain activity appears to be triggered more by strategic and active games, moving them toward explorative, social, and problem-solving games may reduce the risk of gaming disorder.

Furthermore, parents searching for wisdom on how to break a child’s video game addiction can start by changing their own behavior. Adults can model healthy use of devices by taking regular times away from technology, including video games.

Ultimately, however, the most effective way to prevent teenage video game addiction is by addressing the underlying issues that make teens vulnerable to gaming disorder. Hence, parents can help teens build positive coping mechanisms such as physical activity, time in nature, yoga, meditation, and creative expression. In addition, keep the lines of communication open so that teens feel encouraged to share their feelings and experiences. This is particularly important for boys, who are generally less open about their emotional struggles than girls.

Finally, should a teen’s behavior indicate gaming disorder or another mental health or co-occurring issue, seek the support of a mental health professional.

Teenage Video Game Addiction Treatment at Newport Academy

As with substance abuse or eating disorders treatment, effective video game addiction treatment must address the root causes of the maladaptive behavior. First, teens need to recognize that their behavior is not serving their well-being, and commit to the work of healing. Subsequently, therapists guide them to explore the emotions they are self-medicating with gaming.

In addition, treatment guides teens to build healthy habits and a balanced relationship with technology. In terms of modalities for teenage video game addiction treatment, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, family therapy, and residential treatment have all been shown to have positive outcomes.

In conclusion, if your child is struggling with teenage video game addiction, Newport Academy can help. We treat the root causes of maladaptive behaviors, not just the symptoms. Contact us today for more information about our outpatient and residential programs for teens, at locations across the country.