Those who have read J. R. R. Tolkien’s wonderful The Lord of the Rings or seen the films will remember a despicably pitiable character named Gollum. Unlike hobbits, with their simple pleasures and childlike charm, Gollum lives in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction, driven every waking moment by the desire to possess the magic ring he affectionately calls “my precious!” After hundreds of years of being enslaved to the ring’s enticing lure, Gollum loses his most prized possession. Tortured by withdrawal symptoms far worse than those of a sickly, trembling junkie, Gollum soon discovers that he, not the ring, is the one truly possessed.

In our home we began using the phrase “my precious” to describe the effects Nintendo seemed to have on our boys’ ongoing attitudes and behavior, most notably their distressed reaction to being told that game time was up. A joke, of course, but not far from the disturbing reality we discovered as we began to research the emotional, physiological, and social effects of video game addiction on kids.

In 2004 the Washington Post ran a story about the growing number of parents who find it necessary to enlist the help of therapists and support groups to deal with the problem.

Sixteen-year-old Jaysen Perkins spent up to six hours per day playing the military role-playing game SOCOM II, performing missions with the U.S. Navy SEALs. But then it started undermining his social life and his grades. Jaysen’s mom grew concerned about a month after her son started playing the game, when she noticed that he would get up in the middle of the night “trying to play any way he could.”

The family sought help from Kim McDaniel, a licensed mental health counselor who treats about eight other game addicts at her private practice in Washington. McDaniel’s most common patients are six- and twelve-year-olds, both ages representing a transition into elementary or middle school and the struggle to relate to other kids. She frequently uncovers a connection to video game addiction and a correlating misunderstanding on the part of parents: “I often find that parents have nothing but the best intent with their children’s relationship to technology, but there are a lot of myths out there.”

One such myth is the notion that video games are engrossing but not addictive. McDaniel describes one of the reasons video games such as Grand Theft Auto and online games like SOCOM II and EverQuest, which allow multiple players to compete over the Internet, are potentially addictive—something manufacturers call the God effect. In more addictive role-playing games, players find themselves at the center of the universe, which McDaniel describes as very attractive for teens without a lot of power in the real world.

What to look for

Parents are advised to watch for two important signs in their children: withdrawal and isolation. Parents might wonder if their kids are getting into pot or cocaine, says Hilarie Cash of the Internet/Computer Addiction Services in Redmond, Washington, since the symptoms are similar.

For Jaysen Perkins, recognizing and addressing the problem has made a big difference. He has reentered the real world, attending his church youth group with friends and reclaiming old hobbies.

Maryanne, a National Geographic programming executive, has seen a similar pattern in her seventeen-year-old son, Kevin, that makes her cautious about the digital world, which she calls “a culture that they just slip into.” She has seen her son stay up all night playing games on his video deck. When his grades slipped, she and her husband cut off access, then limited use to the post-homework hours. Jonathan himself acknowledged that his gaming was getting out of hand when he started turning down invitations from friends to movies so that he could stay home and play video games.

Long before my own children exhibited these patterns, BBC News in England ran a story, in November 2000, explaining that addiction is one of the chief criticisms leveled at video games. The charge suggests that they lead to compulsive behavior, diminished interest in other activities, association mainly with other “addicts,” and the kinds of symptoms other addicts experience when denied their favorite pastime, such as “the shakes.” The story describes characteristics of the individuals who succumbed to addiction.

Dr. Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University, an expert on video game addiction, says, “The video games of the 21st Century may in some ways be more psychologically rewarding than the 1980s games in that they require more complex skills, improved dexterity, and feature socially relevant topics and better graphics.” If these games offer greater “psychological rewards,” players might be more at risk of developing an addiction, he said.

What caught my attention, however, was Dr. Griffiths’ list of questions that should trigger parental concern:

  1. Does your child play almost every day?
  2. Does your child often play for long periods (over three to four hours at a time)?
  3. Does your child play for excitement?
  4. Does your child get restless and irritable if he or she can’t play?
  5. Does your child sacrifice social and sporting activities to play?
  6. Does your child play instead of doing homework?
  7. Does your child try to cut down his or her playing but can’t?

If the answer is “yes” to more than four of these questions, parents are told that they should be concerned. In our case we answered “yes” to four. But in addition, we found our son losing his capacity to enjoy other, more healthy activities like sports and board games. Therefore, I suggest adding an eighth question to Dr. Griffiths’ list:

8. Does your child seem to be losing interest in real-life activities?

Research on video game addiction goes back more than twenty years, when digital games were not nearly as appealing and realistic as today’s variety. Still, the results all point in the same direction: a growing risk to our children.

Avoiding common mistakes

Kurt and I are glad we made the tough decision to remove video games when we did. For our home it was the best option. But we also wish the problem had never surfaced. Unfortunately, we made all of the common mistakes that can feed video game addiction in children.

Mistake 1: Starting Young

The earlier a child begins playing electronic games, the sooner he or she is exposed to the patterns that lead to addiction. Children who become accustomed to junk food lose their appetite for healthful foods. Similarly, kids also “acquire a taste” for how they want to spend their recreational time. Those who develop patterns of “natural” play, rather than “virtual” play, are more likely to become well-rounded, happy adolescents. Those who are introduced to the dopamine-inducing high of prolonged video-game play often become bored with any other form of recreation.

Mistake 2: Easy Access

The vast majority of children over eight years old own their own video game system—more than one when you include handheld systems such as Game Boy. The risk of video game addiction increases dramatically when your child owns a system, because it is much harder to control the amount of time spent in an environment where it is readily available. Making matters worse, 49 percent of kids are allowed to keep the video game system in their bedrooms, where it is all but impossible to monitor time played.

As with any other behavioral addiction, easy and frequent access to the object of obsession makes it more difficult to avoid potential pitfalls. Therefore, if you fear your child might become addicted, seriously consider not purchasing a system. They can still play once in a while at a friend’s home. If you do own a system, consider purchasing only group games or E-rated racing games, and treat the system like a board game that is kept in a box and brought out periodically for an hour or so, then boxed up and returned to the closet. Such approaches can drastically reduce the risk of obsession without totally eliminating games from a child’s experience. Also try to stay away from games that are designed to be played alone for long periods of time.

Mistake 3: Using as a Reward System

Many parents admit that the promise of video game playtime is the only thing they have found that can successfully motivate their child to do homework, chores, and other productive activities. And while the benefit of completed school assignments and other tasks may seem like a positive aspect of video game obsession, the long-term negative consequences far outweigh any short-term gain. Using video games as a child’s motivation for completing responsible activities subconsciously reinforces the notion that completing a job, reading, learning, etc., are necessary evils to endure rather than rewards in and of themselves. Other motivational rewards, such as money, an ice-cream date with Dad, or a movie outing, are far more effective and avoid feeding a propensity toward video game obsession.

Mistake 4: “One More Level?”

When asked to shut off the video game system, it is a rare child who obeys quickly and ceases play. Invariably, they respond instead with a plea for “just one more level” or time to defeat the current villain before they will “save my game.” As a result, many parents end up allowing their child to spend much more time playing video games than they intended or often realize. As one recovering video game addict said, “If you say you intend to restrict the amount of time a child spends, you better ask yourself whether you can really do it. Kids are very good at pushing and pushing for more time.” Time flies when kids play video games, in part because we parents fall into the “one more level” trap.

Mistake 5: Ignoring Your Gut

Many parents have a bad feeling about the amount of time their child spends playing, talking about, and thinking about video games. There is a nagging sense that allowing so much video game time may have long-term negative consequences. But they second-guess the feeling, writing it off as being old-fashioned or too strict, thinking, “It’s just the way kids are nowadays!” Besides, they don’t want the inevitable conflict that comes from restricting or removing the game system. But video game addiction affects a growing number of kids, especially boys. Parents know their child better than anyone else; I urge them to trust their gut and intervene if needed to help their child live a more fulfilling life.

Adapted from Playstation Nation by Olivia and Kurt Bruner. Copyright © 2006 by Olivia Bruner and Kurt Bruner. Used with permission of Little Brown and Company.