Is Your Kid a Video-Game Addict?

Most likely not. But if you’re worried, try the simplest solution: Limit gaming time.

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Are nearly 10 percent of kids and teenagers who play video games showing signs of addiction? That’s the word from a report in the journal Psychological Science, which says that 8.5 percent of the 1,178 kids ages 8 to 18 who were randomly sampled by a 2007 Harris poll showed at least 6 of 11 addiction symptoms.

But don’t trash the Xbox just yet. First of all, the addiction symptoms included skipping household chores or homework to play, playing games to escape problems, and lying about length of playing time. If that’s true, I’m definitely addicted to reading, because I’ll happily evade vacuuming and other unpleasant aspects of life by burying my nose in a book. And who hasn’t lied when asked about staying up last night surfing Craigslist or checking out Facebook? It’s a great question, particularly since today marks the beginning of Turnoff Week, a time to consider life without video.

As the Washington Post pointed out in its story this morning, if 8.5 percent of American children and teens are addicted to video games, that would add up to 3 million kids. It’s hard to imagine that many kids could be in serious trouble from playing, say, Halo. Just spending a lot of time gaming doesn’t mean a kid is in trouble, notes David Gentile, the Iowa State University psychologist who conducted the study. He used the same criteria used to evaluate pathological gambling in the DSM, the diagnostic standard for psychiatric disorders. Gentile’s study is the largest involving a nationwide sample to look at video gaming.

Up to four bad habits won’t get you diagnosed; with five or more, start worrying. In Gentile's study, the youngsters who had more than four pathological symptoms of video gaming also were more likely to have trouble in school, even after the researchers controlled for the amount of time spent playing. In other words, the problems with school weren’t just caused by the fact that gamers spent so much time at the console.

The bottom line: You already know if gaming is causing problems for your child and your family. And if it is, you know the solution, too.

Many parents come in for pediatric checkups with Donald Shifrin, a clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine, and ask, “How do I get this demon out of my child’s bedroom?” The doctor has gotten to the point where he asks the child: “What would happen if your mother took the video game out of your room?” The kid then looks at the doctor as if saying: That would never happen. Shifrin, wearing his hat as a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, says: “We want to empower parents to realize the actual definition of parenting is as a verb, not a noun.” The academy recommends that children spend no more than two hours a day with all screen media, on average. That means TV, video games, computer, and iPhone.

“Children will always ask for more,” Shifrin notes. “And parents always have to set up those boundaries.” The ideal, he says, is to strike the right balance for your family—one that includes sports and exercise, social activities, hangout time, and media such as video games. He hasn’t yet fixed the family room TV that broke three weeks ago, he notes, and he finds that his family is spending more time talking and reading the newspaper. But there’s no question that the TV’s going to be repaired before the NBA finals.

If you feel it’s time to tweak the balance for your own family’s use of video games or other media, Shifrin suggests four sites that offer media-management strategies for parents:

  • Common Sense Media, with a guide to video-game addiction
  • The National Institute on Media and the Family
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics guide to media use
  • The Entertainment Software Rating Board rates video games, but it describes only a game's level of violence and questionable language
  • If you think your child’s already too deep into video games, here are resources to treat video-game addiction. But for most families, the answer will be: Turn off the box.