Online Computer Gaming: Advice for Parents (page 2)
Some years ago in an issue of Education and Health, I provided some advice to parents and teachers on responsible playing of video games by children and adolescents (5). More recently, I have received a large increase in the number of e-mails from parents and teachers concerning online games like World of Warcraft, Everquest, and Lord of the Rings. The most typical emails I get are along the lines of 'Could my child become addicted to an online game?, 'Are online computer games more addictive than offline games?', 'Isn't online gaming pointless?'' and 'My child is addicted to online gaming, what can I do?" In this article I will attempt to answer these types of question.
Is it possible for an adolescent to become addicted to an online computer game?
Addiction basically boils down to constant reinforcement (i.e., rewards). An adolescent cannot become addicted to something unless they are constantly rewarded for the behavior they are engaged in. Online gaming is potentially addictive although the number of people who are truly addicted is small. In my research I have only come across a handful of people who I would genuinely call addicts. Such individuals may play over 80 hours a week on games like World of Warcraft and Everquest! However, playing excessively does not mean someone is addicted. If there are no negative detrimental effects as a result of excessive playing, I would not view that behavior as an addiction.
Online gaming addiction comes about by the partial reinforcement effect (PRE) (7). This is a critical psychological ingredient of gaming addiction whereby the reinforcement is intermittent (i.e., people keep responding in the absence of reinforcement hoping that another reward is just around the corner). Knowledge about the PRE gives the game designer an edge in designing appealing games. Magnitude of reinforcement (e.g., high points score for doing something ingame) is also important. Large rewards lead to fast responding and greater resistance to extinction - in short to more "addiction"(7). Instant reinforcement is also satisfying.
Is online gaming more addictive than offline gaming?
Online gaming involves multiple reinforcements in that different features might be differently rewarding to different people (what I would call 'the kitchen sink approach'). In video games more generally, the rewards might be intrinsic (e.g., improving your highest score, beating your friend's high score, getting your name on the "hall of fame," mastering the machine) or extrinsic (e.g., peer admiration) (6). In online gaming, there is no end to the game and there is the potential for teenagers to play endlessly against (and with) other real people. This can be immensely rewarding and psychologically engrossing. For a small minority of people this will lead to addiction where online gaming is the single most important thing and that person's life and which the compromise and neglect everything else in their life. Currently there is little research indicating how the addiction establishes itself and what people are actually addicted to (7).
Is there potential for long-term damage to an adolescent's mental health through playing online games?
As with all addictions, there is a potential for long-term damage but the good news is that very few people appear to have developed such problems although there is research suggesting that in extreme cases, online gamers can experience all the core signs and symptoms of more traditional addictions such as withdrawal symptoms, conflict with other activities, mood modifying effects, and relapse (1). Healthy enthusiasms add to life, addictions take away from them. The vast majority of excessive gamers will say their activity has positive effects for them. There are many people who play excessively without having any negative impact on their life at all although many players experience some signs of addiction without necessarily being addicted (11).
What are the benefits to having a virtual life?
There is lots of evidence suggesting that gaming can have very positive effects in peoples' lives. Online gaming can make people feel psychologically better about themselves and help raise self-esteem. The immersive and dissociative experience of gaming can also be very therapeutic and help people deal with every day stresses and strains. Research by our research unit shows that many gamers love the fact that playing games leads to time loss (13; 14). Many would argue that this is more positive than drug use, drinking alcohol or other activities like gambling. Simulated environments also allow people to explore their personalities (e.g. gender swapping) and test out boundaries.
Is online gaming pointless?
Accusations of 'pointlessness' can be levelled at almost any leisure activity in life, not just online gaming. More and more people engage in some kind of computer gaming so the number of people attacking such activities will decrease over time. People are also becoming more digitally literate. The demographics of online gaming are also expanding (9). The average age of a gamer is steadily getting older and more females are starting to play. People only engage in leisure activities that are psychologically and socially rewarding for them. Recent research from our research unit has also shown that around a third of online gamers make good friends in the game (2) and that online games allow players to experiment with other parts of their personality that would be difficult to do offline, such as gender swapping (12).
The 'golden rules' of gaming
Finally, just to reiterate some 'golden rules' that I have made before in relation to children and adolescent gaming.
- Check the content of the gaming activity. Try and give children and adolescents games that are educational rather than violent. Parents usually have control over what their child watches on television - gaming should not be any different.
- Try to encourage gaming in groups rather than as a solitary activity. This will lead to children and adolescents talking and working together. Also remember that many online games are based on social activity and working together. Our research has consistently shown that the main reason for playing online games is for the social element (8; 10).
- Set time limits on playing time. Tell children and adolescents that they can play for a couple of hours after they have done their homework or their chores - not before.
- Parents and guardians should always get their children to follow the recommendations by the game manufacturers and/or the service providers (e.g., sit at least two feet from the screen, play games in a well-lit room, never have the screen at maximum brightness, and never engage in gaming when feeling tired).
- Finally, if all else fails, temporarily prohibit gaming and then allow them to play again on a part-time basis when appropriate.
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