Excessive gaming in adolescence increases the likelihood you will develop other addictions later in life. We asked our experts at Paracelsus Recovery to explain why it is a gateway to more harmful habits and how to make sure your child is gaming in moderation.
Gaming can be a fun and social hobby for young people, but there are health risks. Worryingly, the number of referrals we received for young adults with gaming addictions tripled during the pandemic. Not only are gaming dependencies problematic in and of themselves, studies also show that children who game are more likely to develop other addictions.
But it is often an overlooked cause. Most of our clients were completely unaware that the root of their challenges was a gaming addiction. Many of them were seeking treatment for issues such as cannabis dependency, gambling problems or generalised anxiety disorder. But they experienced the most intense withdrawal symptoms when they could not use their laptops for gaming.
What Does Gaming Do to Your Brain?
To understand why gaming is addictive, we need to understand the brain’s reward system. Simply put, once we expose our brain to something pleasurable, it sends out feel-good chemicals to encourage us to repeat that behaviour. Anything that helps our survival will send out these chemicals, such as eating, drinking or social interaction. Any experience which helps our survival in the modern world, such as significant achievements and making money, will also lead to pleasant feelings.
Games work via an achievement paradigm. This means that when you play a game, you are constantly progressing in some form by, for instance, reaching a checkpoint or completing a level. Your brain will perceive those virtual achievements as beneficial for your real-life survival. As a result, it releases dopamine, the number one feel-good chemical involved in addiction.
If someone feels as though they aren’t achieving much in their life, those virtual hits substitute the missing feel-good chemicals and can become very addictive, very quickly.
Why is it a Gateway Drug?
Gaming can lead to other addictions for two main reasons:
It Creates Neurochemical Imbalances
While games are fun, they are also stressful. If a developing mind is exposed to excessive video games, it can result in that child’s brain becoming stuck in a perpetual fight-or-flight response. This means the brain is releasing an abnormal amount of the stress hormone cortisol. To relieve themselves of that stress, children may seek out more dopamine and feel-good chemicals, forming an addictive pattern of behaviour.
This could mean they simply play more video games. But it could also lead to other problems such as overeating while gaming, or drinking alcohol, or smoking cannabis and so on, as they attempt to boost their dopamine output.
It Encourages Isolation
Loneliness is one of the leading causes of addiction and gaming is an isolating experience, an activity carried out alone behind a computer screen. While games are often played online with friends, it is impossible to avoid the hard truth that gaming can create feelings of dislocation.
Once someone puts the controller down and the thrill of the game wears off, a sense of loneliness can become overwhelming. Inevitably this will impact their wellbeing, potentially leading them to seek out riskier pleasures elsewhere.
Is it True that Affluent Kids are More At-Risk for Gaming Addiction?
Unfortunately, affluent children are much more likely to develop gaming addictions. For example, research in 2005 found that children from wealthy backgrounds are more predisposed to addiction because they are far more isolated from their parents, both physically and emotionally.
More often than not, successful parents lead jam-packed lives with 24/7 work schedules and are heavily reliant on nannies to look after their children. As a result, emotional neglect is a common issue for children raised in ultra-wealthy households. This can lead to an inner, deeply rooted, loneliness which lays the foundations for excess cortisol, low self-esteem, and chemical imbalances in the brain’s reward system.
To make matters worse, those parents often shower their children with material possessions to make up for their absence. If the child likes playing games, the parent will give them as many as it takes to win their affection. This combination of unlimited access and loneliness creates the perfect environment for a dependency to develop, which can quickly progress into gambling or substance abuse.
What Can Parents Do to Tackle the Problem?
1. Take a Moderation Approach
It is important not to demonise gaming, but you should act when your child’s gaming habits become problematic. Gaming is fine in moderation and, as is also the case with social media, it can do more harm than good to totally ban your child from something all their friends are doing. Instead, try to make sure screen-entertainment time is kept to a minimum (experts recommend two hours per day) and know when to intervene. For more on the signs and symptoms to look out for, go to our gaming addiction page.
2. Get Involved with your Child’s Gaming Habits
When you are with your child and they are gaming, show an interest and give them your undivided attention. For example, ask your child to teach you how to play their favourite game. In doing so, you will both feel more connected to each other, and you are demonstrating that you want to learn about their interests. This means they will be more likely to take you seriously when you ask them to reduce their screen time.
3. Help your Child Cultivate Off-screen Hobbies
Working together, develop a list of activities that can be achieved in the same amount of time they spend gaming. For example, explain to them that in one quarter of the time they spend gaming, they could learn to play a musical instrument or improve on a sport they enjoy. The aim is to gently help your child realise just how many opportunities they are missing out on because of their gaming.
Gaming alone may not lead to problems with dependency, but gaming and loneliness certainly set the stage for it. As we have explained, this can then lead to harmful habits. That is why it is important to keep a close eye out for the signs of gaming addiction and seek professional support if you notice them.
The sooner a mental health issue or addiction is addressed, the greater the chances of long-term recovery.
Paracelsus Recovery is one of the few treatment centres in the world to provide a specialised gaming addiction treatment programme. We will help your child address underlying issues and construct healthier ways of coping with life’s challenges.
We work primarily with ultra-high-net-worth (UHNW) families whose mental health problems often go unnoticed because of the misconception that financial security guarantees mental stability. We only ever treat one client at a time, which means we can provide the strictest confidentiality and our team of highly qualified professionals can fully focus on their recovery.
We recognise that the pandemic has been a difficult time for many UHNW individuals. We are here to help either in person, following all necessary social distancing and self-isolation measures, or through an online treatment programme.