In Brain, Control, Dopamine, Dumb Things, Influences, Media Violence, Neuroplasticity and Media, Neuroplasticity and Society, Parenting, Relationships, Success, Video Gaming, Wellbeing by DC McGuire2 Comments

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I was just told a horrific story, which would be absolutely unbelievable except that I heard it first hand, from a well-educated woman, with a successful career, and a child she loves very much.

Her seventeen-year-old son is failing in school and at life because his time is spent  absorbed by video gaming.  Disappearing into his bedroom, eating at his computer, ignoring homework, he plays Call of Duty until late into the night, every night.  Exhausted in the morning, he arrives at school late, if at all, homework incomplete, unable to focus and learn. His life is disintegrating before her eyes, and her explanation is that she “can’t do anything about it”!

I’m outraged that for the past 5 years a mother could allow her child to crumble physically, intellectually, and emotionally because of an addiction to a destructive, but completely optional activity.  If her child were eating poison, or playing with a loaded gun, would she stand by, just hoping for the best? If her son were knowingly doing drugs with friends in his room, or walking in the middle of a freeway, would she helplessly shrug her shoulders and blow it off with an “I can’t do anything about it?”

I am outraged that a parent would surrender their responsibly and authority to video games.

I’m outraged that while her son’s life is disintegrating, she watches as an observer incapable of interceding in this unfolding disaster. When she says that based on his speech, behavior and long, daily hours of practice as a first person shooter (rewarded for killing and destruction), she believes he might be capable of committing real acts of violence,  but fails to initiate parental and therapeutic intervention; I’m dumbfounded.  

Humans can be addicted to alcohol, drugs, porn, food, gambling, extreme sports, and video games, especially the violent variety.  The natural neurochemical, dopamine, plays the same role in every category of addiction.  It will always result in a craving for more and more of the addictive substance or activity. Eventually the need for the fix is less about a pleasurable high than it is about avoiding the inevitable depression, boredom, and physical symptoms of withdrawal.

Like the potency of street drugs, the greater the violent content, the greater the dopamine fix and addition. Why is it that, unlike dopamine analogs, such as amphetamines and cocaine, parents so easily overlook the dangers and damage of addictive video gaming?   Is it attributable to the wishful thinking of busy, distracted parents hoping that the claim of the 40 billion dollar a year video industry is valid; that Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed, Manhunt or Call of Duty are  “just games, and all kids know the difference”? Or, are parents vaguely hoping for some magical, positive outcome from all those hours their kids have been planted in front of one electronic device or another since they were toddlers?

Why wouldn’t a parent, whose child is faced with a serious condition, comparable to any kind of substance abuse, be talking to other parents, teachers and doctors about the problem; or be all over the internet researching the more than a thousand peer-reviewed studies describing the high risks associated with heavy video gaming.  It’s no longer a matter of vague guesswork – about either the cause or the cure.

The definitive study, analyzing 130 research studies involving 130,000 subjects worldwide, was published in the March 2010 issue of the Psychological Bulletin, an American Psychological Association journal. It reports that exposure to violent video games is a causal risk factor for increased aggressive thoughts and behavior, and decreased empathy and positive social behavior in youths.  The data prove conclusively that exposure to violent video games makes more aggressive, less caring humans — regardless of their age, sex or culture. “We can now say with utmost confidence that regardless of research method — that is experimental, correlational, or longitudinal — and regardless of the cultures tested in this study [East and West], you get the same effects,”  according to Craig Anderson, director of Iowa State’s Center for the Study of Violence.

Sure, the child (or addicted adult) will react with anger and resentment.  An addict is not sane. And, since brain brains can be restructured after only a short period of video gaming(1), if they’ve been practicing violence for years, their thinking and behavior is likely to result in some aggressive acting out towards parents taking responsibility to do what must be done. The source of their fix is being taken away from them, and they will probably need to go through a very uncomfortable period of detox. Internet Addiction Disorder is now undermining the lives of about 10% of all gamers globally (2) and is a condition being treated as a serious mental illness. 

I’m outraged, that when this mother returns home from work she, like many parents, will likely be occupied with her own screen media. Adults are diverted an average of 4 1/2 hours each day*, by television, on demand programming, text messaging, social networking and emailing (3).  With little free time as it is, these devices are often used, in a similarly addictive way, at the expense of fully focused and involved, quality time with children.(4)

Anyone responsible for the well-being of an addicted gamer is obligated to eliminate unessential texting, turn off social media and television, and start doing the tough work of parenting a child seriously in need of attention, guidance and love. The outcomes of turning a blind eye, because “it’s just a game”, or giving up because, “if he doesn’t do it here, he’ll play these games at someone else’s house”, can range from poor grades, health and relationships, to the kind of acting out that makes headlines.

We all need to be outraged and fully engaged with putting a halt to this pandemic. We have laws to regulate harmful substances such as tobacco, alcohol and drugs, so regulation of a health threat like violent video games might make sense.  However, more than government regulation, we need parents who will take responsibility.  No money to buy violent video games; no violent video games allowed in the house.  Parents cooperating with parents to enforce these policies, would go a long way to spare individuals, families and communities from emotional anguish, great security, health and lost productivity costs, and, the horrific suffering which can only increase, if we don’t.

 (1) Gary Small, the head of the Memory and Aging Research Center at UCLA, documented that even a moderate amount of screen time causes structural changes in the brain. Participants with little prior time online, showed fundamental alterations in the prefrontal cortex after one week, following only 5 total hours of activity.  One week, less than one hour per day, and brains are rewired by exposure to the Internet. (Newsweek, July 16, 2012)

(2) Douglas Gentile, an Iowa State associate professor of psychology, collaborated on a study published in the February 2011 issue of Pediatrics — the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which discovered that one in 10 youths involved with video games are addicted.  “We’re starting to see a number of studies from different cultures — in Europe, the U.S. and Asia — and they’re all showing that somewhere around 7 to 11 percent of gamers seem to be having real problems to the point that they’re considered pathological gamers. We define that as damage to actual functioning — their school, social, family, occupational, psychological functioning, etc. To be considered pathological, gamers must be damaging multiple areas of their lives.”  DCM’s note: this study was done in 2009, suggesting that current percentages may be higher, now.

*youth, 8-18  average 7hrs and 38mins,  Kaiser Foundation 2010

 (3)The U.K.’s 2012 governmental Communications Market Report, disclosed that on average, adults have about 3 ½ hours of screen time, including television, on demand programming and DVDs, each day, and another 80 minutes a day on text messaging, social networking and emailing.

 (4) Sherry Turkle, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Initiative on Technology and Self, does research on how parental use of technology affects children and young adults. After five years and 300 interviews, her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, published by Basic Books in January 2011, describes the seriousness of parent’s excessive use of smart phones and social media.



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