Speak to parents with teenagers, and many will undoubtedly say that their children are ‘addicted’ to Facebook or ‘World of Warcraft’. But what does addiction actually mean? The World Health Organisation defines ‘dependence syndrome’ by symptoms such as craving for more, problems controlling use and using despite it causing harm. Stopping other activities for the addiction, withdrawal symptoms, and a need for more of the drug for the same effect (increased tolerance) also tick the box.
So could this apply to technology? It is easy to see how people could neglect activities by preferring to game, and there are anecdotal reports of people ‘binging’ on games for days at a time. A South Korean couple made headlines around the world last year when they reportedly let their baby starve to death whilst they gamed, so clearly it causes problems. Similarly it is easy to see how some people know they shouldn’t watch videos on YouTube so much but they do. But what about withdrawal and tolerance? Does someone who plays on ‘Call of Duty’ need to play for longer and longer before they feel satisfied?
Research has begun to answer these questions. Traditional addiction diagnostic criteria appear to fit gaming and the internet pretty well. Withdrawal symptoms have been noted with feelings of anger or depression when a computer is unavailable. Increased tolerance has also been shown, whereby gamers seek better equipment and play for longer, and problems such as social isolation are well documented.
Much of this research has come from South Korea, which is treating internet addiction as a serious public health problem. The average high school student in South Korea games for 23 hours a week, and there have been a number of deaths from heart or lung failure in internet cafes after gaming marathons. The country now has specially trained counsellors and treatment centres.
Similarly, in China, a reported 13% of teenagers suffer from internet addiction – that’s 10 million people. Those reading should be aware – students also appear to be vulnerable, especially men. It may not just be the internet that causes problems; research has also shown ‘symptoms’ of mobile phone addiction such as a need to ‘substitute operative devices with the new models that appear on the market’. However such ‘addictions’ may often be secondary to other mental health problems, as the vast majority of ‘addicts’ also sufferer from other mental health problems, such as depression.
So some research suggests this may be genuine addiction – but officially it is not recognised at present. The American Psychiatric Society has decided not to include gaming or internet addition in the new version of their diagnostic bible, saying the issue needs more research. But many mental health professionals are nonetheless taking it seriously, and some private clinics in the U.K. have started to offer treatment for gaming addiction. The gaming industry is also responding to criticism by allowing players and parents to set a time limit on online games. China has even introduced laws which ‘discourage’ gaming for more than 3 hours a day.
One reason it might be so hard for people to accept is that it doesn’t seem like there’s a physical addiction to these things. Research using neuroimaging has suggested a neurological component to drug and alcohol addiction. Certain neurotransmitters and parts of the brain appear to be altered by addiction, and may even predispose people to problems. It is easy to see this as physical changes in the brain because of the pharmacological effects of the drug – chemicals up your nose change chemicals in your nervous system. However the effect of taking drugs on the brain is somewhat indirect, as it increases levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine which are naturally occurring. Placebos can have a similar effect on the brain and behaviour if people think they’re taking drugs – people may take a sugar pill but still stay up all night hugging everyone.
Believe it or not, research suggests that gaming can produce similar changes in the brain. In particular gaming may lead to long term changes in neural reward systems in a similar way to drug addiction. In this way a similar effect may be seen in gaming addiction compared to drug addiction, where people lose pleasure and interest in things other than their habit of choice. There also appears to be differences in brain activity between men and women when playing games, which is perhaps why men are more prone to getting a bit too involved.
There is also a strong psychological component to addiction. Take cigarettes -nicotine leaves the blood in days, but people can have cravings years later. Thus if it is not purely physical perhaps this means you can get addicted to pretty much anything. An important psychological aspect of addiction is what is known as ‘intermittent reinforcement’; that is, rewards are unpredictable. In gambling, you occasionally and randomly might win the jackpot. This is what makes it addictive- it would get boring if you knew you’d win every 10th go (though handy for the bank balance). Similarly in computer games there are built in random rewards- extra health, a new gun and so on. These may be what get people hooked.
Though it may not be official yet, it seems inevitable that the idea of internet and gaming addiction will become more widely accepted. Perhaps computers are the 21st century addiction, more easily available, and cheaper and legal when compared to their retro counterparts of gambling and drug addiction. It may not be easy to take seriously, but it has been shown to look very similar to other addictions and cause pretty severe problems. Perhaps it is just hard for many people to get their head around, so I’ll leave you with this thought: if someone is doing something for hours a day, where they cannot stop without feeling like crap, and the activity is generally ruining their life, does it matter whether we are talking about cannabis or ‘The Sims’?
If you are concerned that you may have an addiction visit www.nhs.uk/conditions/addictions/Pages/Introduction.aspx for more information or speak to your GP.
So do you think it’s possible to be addicted to the internet or online games?