Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

It’s All Fun and Games Until…

It’s all fun and games until… it’s an addiction: Two weeks ago I wrote about Pokemon Go, the global blockbuster interactive-reality game being played by millions, myself included. I heard from a number of you, saying: “Play is great, but what happens when play becomes a problem? My kid is addicted to gaming.” You are right. It is possible to have too much of a good thing, and electronic gaming is not exempt.

Here are a few things to consider about the dark side of modern day play.

1. Just because it bugs us doesn’t make it a mental disorder. Okay, let’s be clear: Not every teenage boy has an addiction just because he opts to continue his FIFA football game instead of getting to the dinner table on time. Our kids’ behavior may be irritating and inconvenient, but, in most cases, it’s really no different from when we were kids and we just had to finish one more round of “kick the can” before heading home for dinner. So what’s different, and when is play no longer play?

2. When it’s no longer play: Internet Gaming Disorder: Although it’s not an official diagnosis, Internet Gaming Disorder is included in the DSM-5 as a “condition warranting more clinical research.” The proposed criteria resemble those of other addictions, including: 1) loss of interest in other life activities; 2) increased tolerance, i.e., needing to spend more and more time playing the games to get the emotional/psychological effect; 3) unsuccessful attempts to control participation and irritability, sadness and anxiety when internet access is denied; 4) putting at risk relationships or opportunities because of internet games; 5) lying or deceiving others about one’s internet use; and 6) continuing to play even when you know it is no longer play. It’s serious.

3. Electronic Games and our Brains. Our brains are hardwired a certain way, and some brains are more vulnerable to addiction than others. Internet games stimulate our brains in the same way that certain illegal substances stimulate a drug addict’s brain. Both operate on neurological pathways of pleasure and reward. Something called the prefrontal cortex- which we need for staying on task- has a novelty bias, meaning that we are hardwired to seek out and pay attention to new information: a match made in heaven for electronic games. The neurotransmitter dopamine is released (the “kick ass chemical in your brain that makes you feel and do happy things… whatever they may be”), and adrenaline and cortisol production are increased. A perfect storm.

4. Internet Gaming Disorder likes Company: People with Internet Gaming Disorder tend to have other co-occurring mental health problems. The Japanese have described internet gaming addiction as commonly associated with hikikomori, which literally means “pulling inward, being confined.” Hikikomori primarily affects young men who withdraw from social contact, remaining in their rooms for months or years on end. Often sleeping during the day and staying up all night surfing the Internet and playing video games, these individuals commonly have other mental health problems like social anxiety and depression. Although first described in Japan, hikikomori has now been described in countries around the world, including Canada, Australia and Korea.

5. So what is a parent to do? First, don’t panic. The vast majority of kids who are “obsessed” with internet gaming and video games are well within normal limits. That doesn’t mean their behavior won’t bug you, but it does mean they are just being kids. But if you are worried because you see that this behavior is negatively impacting your child’s friendships, ability to engage in other activities, sleep patterns (okay, we’ll talk about that on another Friday), school work, and/or mood, maybe it is time to intervene. – beginning with a serious conversation with your kid.

SO… for those of you who are still playing Pokemon Go or who have kids playing Pokemon Go, I hope it is still fun and games. If not, please consider whether play has turned problem. Online parenting resources are a good place to go for more information and guidance when you are concerned that child’s play may have crossed over to something more serious – and your family physician or pediatrician should be a good advisor to you in deciding whether your child would also benefit from meeting with a mental health clinician.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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