MONDAY, April 20, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- A sizable number of young video game players -- fully 8.5 percent -- exhibit signs of addiction to gaming, a new study has found.
These kids aren't just playing a lot. Their gaming interferes with school performance, disrupts interaction with family and friends and poses health problems, the study reveals.
Douglas A. Gentile, a developmental psychologist and an assistant professor at Iowa State University in Ames, said the study is the first to document the prevalence of video game addiction using a nationally representative sample of children and adolescents.
"What's most concerning to me is really the total percentage, just the vast number of kids that are having real problems in their lives because they play games, and they may not know how to stop it," said Gentile, whose study appears in the May edition of Psychological Science.
Experts don't agree on whether such a thing as "video game addiction" really exists. At present, it is not listed as a mental disorder in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The next update of that manual, which describes criteria for diagnosing various psychiatric disorders, is due out in 2012.
"I think we're at the same place now with video gaming as we were with alcoholism 40 years ago," said Gentile, noting that decades of research finally showed that alcoholism is a disease.
When Gentile began studying video game addiction in 1999, he, too, was a skeptic. "Addiction has to mean you're damaging your functioning and not just in one area of your life," he said. He was surprised to see that, in fact, the data showed that kids were exhibiting that level of damage.
The new study is based on data from a nationwide survey if 1,178 U.S. children and teens -- aged 8 to 18 -- conducted by Harris Interactive, the research firm based in Rochester, N.Y., that's perhaps best-known for its Harris Poll. The surveys were conducted in January 2007 and involved roughly 100 children at each age represented in the sample.
Children completed an online questionnaire using several scales to assess their video gaming habits. They were asked questions such as: "Have you every played [video games] as a way of escaping from problems or bad feelings?" "Have you ever lied to family and friends about how much you play [video games]?"
To measure pathological gaming in kids, Gentile adapted criteria used to diagnose pathological gambling. Gamers were classified as pathological if they exhibited at least six of the 11 criteria.
Pathological gamers played more frequently and for more time, received worse grades and were more likely to report having trouble paying attention in school than non-pathological players. They also reported more health problems associated with playing video games, such as hand and wrist pain.
They were more than twice as likely to have been diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder -- 25 percent of pathological gamers versus 11 percent of non-pathological players. And they were more likely (24 percent vs. 12 percent) to report having been involved in physical fights in the past year.
"I think it does highlight that parents and kids do need to talk about game play and they do need to talk about rules," said Cheryl K. Olson, co-director and co-founder of the Center for Mental Health and Media at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
However, she questioned the appropriateness of adapting questions used to assess problem gambling in adults.
"It's one thing for a child to fib to his mom about how long he's played a video game," Olson said. "It's another thing to lie to your wife about gambling."
She also questioned whether kids as young as 8 can accurately complete a self-administered questionnaire.
If parents think their kid has a problem, they're probably right and should trust their instincts, according to Gentile, who also serves as director of research for the National Institute on Media and the Family in Minneapolis.
Experts say that when playing video games becomes compulsive and results in kids skipping school or not playing with friends, that could signal other mental health problems.
"What you usually find with these kids is this [video game compulsion] is just the tip of the iceberg," said Dr. Michael Brody, a psychiatrist in private practice in Potomac, Md., and chairman of the media committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. "Underneath you usually find a lot of depression and anxiety."
"To put a label like 'video game addiction' is too superficial," Brody said.
The Nemours Foundation has tips for healthy TV, video game and Internet use.