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Child Video Game Addiction - Facts & Solutions

By Dr. Brent Conrad, Clinical Psychologist

Author of “How to Help Children Addicted to Video Games - A Guide for Parents” (Need help? Download the full treatment guide today and get free email support from Dr. Conrad)

Looking for clear information about teen and child video game addiction?

You just found it. In this article…

  • What percentage of teens and children are addicted to video games?

  • Why are video games so addictive to children and teenagers?

  • What are the most addictive types of video games for children and teenagers?

  • How many hours per day should parents allow children to play computer games?

  • How many hours of video games per week indicates that a child is addicted?

  • How does child video game addiction affect school grades?

  • How should parents handle homework and video games?

  • What psychological and social problems are associated with teen and child video game addiction?

  • What are the risk factors for child and teenager video game addiction?

  • If a child or a teen is addicted to video games, is this just a symptom of a larger “underlying issue”?

  • What are the warning signs for children addicted to video games?

  • How important is it that parents are “on the same page” when helping a child who is addicted to video games?

  • Is it possible for parents to “enable” a child or teenager who is addicted to computer games?

  • How can parents get help for teenagers and children who are addicted to video games?

In the last decade, video games have become the dominant form of entertainment worldwide – especially given the steady decrease in TV viewing habits. No longer confined to arcades or the home, today video games can be found almost everywhere. Portable systems, smart phones, and tablets make gaming a possibility regardless of where you happen to be. Of course, home consoles and computers also remain popular gaming systems for children, teens, and adults.

Not surprisingly, the ubiquitous nature of video games coupled with children and teens who do not always know when to stop playing, has resulted in parents who are concerned about child video game addiction. Parents understandably worry when video games become the number one priority in a child’s life. They may neglect hobbies, sports, friends, argue frequently with family members who try to limit gaming, and put little or no effort into schoolwork.  

The purpose of this article is to review the growing problem of teen and child video game addiction. The article is intended primarily for parents and those who work with young people who may be obsessed with video / computer games. Is video game addiction a real problem for children and teens? Why do some children and teenagers become addicted to computer games? What are the risk factors and warning signs for video game addiction? What can parents do to help teenagers or children addicted to video games?

Read on for the answers to all of these questions and many more.

The goal is to present a complete look at teen and child video game addiction which is based on current research and best clinical practice.

What percentage of teens and children are addicted to video games?

The problem in answering this question is that, video game addiction is not officially classified as a mental health condition. Although the parents of children who are addicted to computer games, protest every time they are asked to quit, and have little interest in other activities would probably argue otherwise, video game addiction has not been recognized as a “true” psychological disorder. Therefore, unlike a problem like compulsive gambling, there is no list of universally accepted video game addiction symptoms.

As a consequence, researchers wishing to study child video game addiction have been forced to define the problem using their own set of symptoms. Not surprisingly, this has resulted in many different conclusions about how many kids and teens may be addicted to computer games. Nevertheless, findings the 2 - 12% range are common in most studies - depending on the population sampled and the criteria used to define video game addiction. Given the current limitations of the research, as a general guideline, 5% seems to be a safe prevalence estimate for video game addiction in children.

Why are video games so addictive to children and teenagers?

Video games target the natural interests of children and adolescents

There is no single factor that makes video games so appealing to kids (or adults for that matter). Something about a game that is fascinating to one child may seem rather boring to another. The key is that no matter what the child happens to be interested in or engaged by…there is likely a video game that allows him or her to easily escape into this virtual world.

Children who in past generations may have spent hours playing “cops and robbers” or “war” may today be fascinated with first person shooters like “Call of Duty” or “Halo”. Children that are interested in sports may today be more likely to live out their fantasies in a video game than on an actual field. Teens that are interested in fantasy worlds and exploration may be drawn to games like “World of Warcraft” rather than reading novels such as “Lord of the Rings”. Children who would previously spend hours creating impressive structures out of Lego may now find greater appeal in a game like “Minecraft” which arguably allows for even greater creativity with much less effort.

Online gaming, social connections, and the appeal of virtual worlds

The online components of most modern video games adds not only to their general appeal and replay value, but also is thought to significantly increase the likelihood of addiction. During the first video game boom of the 1980s, games were largely single-player activities designed to keep the player engaged with increasingly difficult hand-eye coordination challenges coupled with the goal of obtaining a high score (think Super Mario Brothers and Tetris). True, some young players did become obsessed with mastering the games, but the possibility that children or teens could truly become addicted to video games really started when online gaming was introduced in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Suddenly, gaming was no longer a single player challenge focused on mastering and memorizing a series of jumps and button presses. They were multi-player gaming experiences in which the players themselves became an essential part of highly detailed, constantly evolving, user-created virtual worlds. Gamers designed their own characters, started alliances with other players, created their own game objectives, and built digital universes that some players found more enjoyable than living in the real world. These online universes became more than just games – they were now approaching fully-realized societies with towns, currency, classes, stores and services, histories and mythologies, political systems, and even law enforcement!

Why some kids become addicted to video games

In summary, it can be argued that video games take what children naturally find interesting and:

…offers opportunities to explore these interests in a seemingly more engaging and visually stimulating format

…which allows the player to temporarily adopt a more exciting, powerful or appealing virtual identity

…which allows for virtual experiences impossible in the real world

…which requires much less effort than pursuing these interests otherwise

…and reinforces continued play though online social connections, obligation to teammates, rewards for continued play, a carefully crafted sense of gradual accomplishment, and well-established principals of psychological and behavioral reinforcement

Again, the previous passages describe just a few factors that potentially contribute to video game addiction in children and teens. For many (many) more, see the article “Why Are Video Games Addictive?

What are the most addictive types of video games for children and teenagers?

Although the most addictive computer and video games will obviously differ from child to child, research has consistently found that online role playing games (MMOs), and to a lesser extent first person shooters (FPS), are the genre of games with the greatest potential for obsession and addiction.

There are numerous reasons for MMO computer game addiction, including:

  • “Levelling-up” reinforcement (characters become progressively more powerful following the completion of in-game tasks. Early levelling usually requires only minutes of play but this slowly progresses until reaching the next stage takes hours, weeks, or even months).

  • The necessity of cooperation with other players to achieve goals.

  • A sense of obligation to teammates.

  • The appeal of escaping to a continually evolving fantasy world.

  • Highly additive video games such as online role playing games may permit players to express thoughts and feelings that they do not feel comfortable talking about (or do not the opportunity to express) in regular life.

  • The regular introduction of new challenges and gameplay elements, and the fact that it is virtually impossible to finish MMOs. In an MMO, the child or teen will never reach a “Game Over” screen - there will always be new worlds to explore, new upgrades to work for, new relationships to develop, and new missions to complete.   

How many hours per day should parents allow children to play computer games?

First, it is recommended that any screen time (whether it is television, computer games, console games, games on an iPad, etc.) should come only after children or teenagers have attended to other responsibilities (e.g., homework and/or household chores). The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting a child’s viewing of movies, watching TV, and playing video games to one or two hours per day. I personally recommend a limit of one hour per day of video games for school age children and no more than two hours per day for teens.

How many hours of video games per week indicates that a child is addicted?

There is no set number of hours per day or week that signifies that a child or teenager is addicted to video games. Obviously, the more a child or teen plays, the more likely it is that he or she is playing too much.  Extreme cases of computer game addiction are quite obvious (for example, 10% of the gamers in this study played an average of 63 hours per week). A child who spends 5 hours per week playing video games is unlikely to be addicted. A teen who spends 10 hours per week is also likely to have gaming under control.

However, most parents start to worry when gaming creeps into the 15 - 30 hour per week range. Is this an addiction? In most cases, the definition of a problem will depend on how excessive computer gaming is affecting other areas of the young person’s life. Is an obsession with video games resulting in poor grades at school? Conflict with parents? Extreme inactivity? Neglect of household responsibilities? Poor sleep habits? Lack of interest in other activities or hobbies? Loss of friends?

To assess whether your child may be addicted to video games, see The Video Game Addiction Test for Parents.

How does child video game addiction affect school grades?

Although there is a “common sense” assumption that kids who play video games do worse in school, the research generally does not support this conclusion! Simply being interested in and playing video games (as most children and teen do) does not appear to negatively affect school performance. Most kids can play video games without becoming addicted and their academic grades do not suffer as a result of occasional play.

However…for teens and children who are addicted to video games and play much more than their peers, the research has consistently shown that obsessive and excessive play is associated with lower grades in school.

For more on this distinction, see the research article “Children and Video Games: Addiction, Engagement, and Scholastic Achievement”.

How should parents handle homework and video games?

Again, any video game time should be seen as a privilege that comes only if the child properly attends to other responsibilities. I strongly encourage parents to get their children into a daily habit of completing homework before allowing video games. Even if your child’s school doesn’t assign homework (yes, this is unfortunately becoming very common), I highly recommend that time be set aside each day for academic-related work.

There are very good workbooks available for all school grades and subjects (try a quick search on Amazon) and many excellent educational apps for tablets (the iTooch series is excellent and one that I often recommend). The earlier parents start a regular schedule the better, but it is never too late to begin. With consistent enforcement of homework before video games, before long your child will understand that “learning time” must be a priority over video games, and that gaming time is earned, not an entitlement.  

What psychological and social problems are associated with teen and child video game addiction?

Although child video game addiction research is still in its early stages, there is growing evidence that teens and children who are addicted to computer games can experience a host of social, emotional, and behavioral problems:

  • Teenagers who are addicted to computer games and are then forced to go without them (either due to a ban from parents or being unable to play for some other reason) can become extremely irritable, anxious, or depressed.

What are the risk factors for child and teenage video game addiction?

For more, see Ten Video Game Addiction Risk Factors and Video Game Addiction Statistics - Facts, Figures, Percentages, & Numbers.

If a child or a teen is addicted to video games, is this just a symptom of a larger “underlying issue”?

Is teen and child video game addiction caused by an “underlying issue”? Short answer: Sometimes, but not always. Are other mental health issues caused by video game addiction? Again, sometimes, but not always. Can these issues exist independently from the other difficulties? Absolutely.

Yes, of course excessive gaming can occur in response to other difficulties (for example, depression or social anxiety). But, and this is the point some health professionals still seem to miss, excessive gaming can almost certainly exist independently as the primary problem…and as the underlying cause of other difficulties.

What are the warning signs for children addicted to video games?

Although video game addiction does not look exactly the same from child to child, there are certain common warning signs that may indicate a problem. It is definitely possible to help children and teenagers addicted to video games, so the sooner parents recognize these warning signs the sooner they can intervene.

Obsession with video games

This first sign of child video game addiction is perhaps the most obvious one. Kids and adolescents become preoccupied with (usually) their favourite game. They think about it, read about it, and talk about it when they are not playing (and they take the first opportunity that arises to play again). Concentration and attention is diminished and they may daydream about the game when they should be focused on other activities (e.g., listening to a teacher at school, completing homework, studying for a test, etc.). As the obsession progresses, kids may completely neglect their schoolwork or household responsibilities, miss deadlines, and no longer spend time with offline friends.

Lying about time spent playing computer or video games

Young people who are addicted to computer games (especially teenagers) may lie to parents and family members about how often they play and about how long gaming sessions last. This is especially common if parents make the mistake of allowing a computer or gaming console in the child’s bedroom. Kids may tell their parents that they are doing homework when in fact they have been playing video games for hours. To avoid detection, teens may even wake up in the middle of the night to play a favorite computer game while parents are sleeping.

Neglect or loss of interest in other activities

Teens and children and who are becoming addicted to video games will gradually lose interest in activities, sports, and hobbies they once enjoyed. Neglect of schoolwork is often the first sign that gaming habits are becoming unhealthy. However, as an interest in gaming evolves into an obsession and eventually into an addiction, even formerly enjoyable activities (sports, TV, music, clubs) lose their appeal. If a child’s only interest is computer games, this is a very good indication that his or her video game habits are becoming excessive or unhealthy and that parents must take action to avoid or address video game addiction.

Social isolation

Teenagers and children addicted to video games may undergo a noticeable change in personality. Formerly outgoing and sociable teens may have little interest in spending time with friends and family, may claim that his best friends are now online gaming friends, may appear withdrawn and anti-social, and may prefer to retreat to the comfort of video games over social interactions.

From bargaining to defensiveness to anger

Depending on their personalities and how parents previously enforced rules in other areas, kids who are addicted to computer games will respond differently to limitations imposed by parents. In the early stages of computer game addiction, children and teens may relying on bargaining (“I promise to finish all my homework if I can finish this one level - just few more minutes”). When constant bargaining becomes the norm and frustrated parents confront their children, they may respond by becoming defensive and try to rationalize excessive video game habits (“I don’t play as much as other kids” or “At least I’m not out drinking or using drugs”). When lying, bargaining, and becoming defensive no longer works, orders from parents to stop playing may be met with anger, hostility, swearing and insults, and even physical aggression. If your child becomes enraged or violent when he is required to stop playing, this is a very clear sign that there is a problem which needs to be addressed as soon as possible.
Irritability, anxiety, and depressed mood

Although the idea of “psychological withdrawal” is controversial with regard to computer game addiction, children and teens who are forced to stop playing for an extended period of time may become irritable, anxious, or experience depressed mood. They may spend much of their time thinking about how to regain access to the computer, claim that all other activities are “boring”, and have difficulty concentrating and focusing because they are daydreaming about the game.

Using video games as a coping mechanism

People (children and teens included) who become obsessed with video games may sometimes do so to avoid thinking about or dealing with real life problems. A child who lives in a dysfunctional home environment may retreat to video games for comfort and to gain a sense of control. Teens who feel isolated, inadequate, or socially awkward may turn to online video games as a way to feel more confident, powerful, and connected with others. In these cases child video game addiction may be seen as the consequence of problems affecting the young person in real life. That is, the addiction may develop into a legitimate problem of its own, but it was initially triggered as a way of coping with pre-existing issues. In these situations, only addressing the obsessive gaming problem would not be sufficient.

Continuing to play despite serious real world consequences

One of the warning signs of video game addiction in children or adults is continued play despite suffering negative real world consequences. The person lives primarily for the next opportunity to play. Every day he puts hours upon hours into his favorite game, slowly but steadily builds his character, improves his skills, and becomes more invested in a virtual world and its inhabitants (mostly other players). As more and more time is spent with the game, real world relationships, responsibilities, and self-care may be neglected. Children who are addicted to video games may see a dramatic drop in school grades, may lose friends due to little in-person contact, etc. Teens and young adults may drop out of school, experience breakups due to excessive gaming, experience work-related problems, etc.    

For more information, see Video Game Addiction Symptoms and Signs.

How important is it that parents are “on the same page” when helping a child who is addicted to video games?

With regard to child video game addiction, it is extremely important that parents present as a united front (regardless of whether they live together or are separated and share custody). That is, parents must discuss the problem before setting new rules and expectations for the child. It is essential that they decide on common goals, even if this means that compromises must be made.

It is common for one parent to be more concerned than the other about a child’s video game addiction. Parents commonly disagree on how video games should be limited and what the consequences should be if rules are not followed. If the child or teen senses that one parent is more lenient than the other or would be willing to overlook a few rules, he will likely try to divide the parents and use the more lenient parent against the other. If parents allow this to happen, any intervention strategy will almost certainly fail.

To see where you and your partner stand with regard to your child’s computer gaming habits, it is recommended that you both complete The Video Game Addiction Test for Parents.

Is it possible for parents to “enable” a child or teenager who is addicted to computer games?

The term “enabling” is often used in the field of addictions to describe someone (often a family member or friend) who genuinely wishes to help an addict, but actually makes it easier for the individual to continue the destructive behavior (for example, drugs, alcohol, or gambling). Although enabling child video game addiction is not nearly as well studied, I have certainly seen well-intended and loving parents whose behaviors inadvertently allow a child’s video game addiction to continue. In these situations, parents may:

  • Cover for a child when he misses school due to gaming

  • Complete homework for him to avoid bad grades

  • Allow meals to be eaten while gaming

  • Dismiss deteriorating school performance and lack of interest in other activities as unrelated to gaming

  • Take care of the child’s responsibilities at home

  • Lie to family or friends about just how much he is playing computer games

Parents who do these things have good intentions and are simply trying to protect their children from further harm. However, these actions only prevent additional damage in the short term. In the long term, enabling allows unhealthy or excessive computer gaming to continue. The child quickly learns that he can play as much as he wants and there will be few (obvious) negative consequences.

Of course, this arrangement is clearly not healthy or sustainable for long. The video game addiction continues to escalate as the child requires ever more cover from family. Parents must acknowledge that enabling a video game addict only prolongs and deepens the obsession. They can still be supportive, but at some point they must allow their child to experience the negative consequences resulting from out of control computer gaming.

Read more about enabling video game addiction.    

How can parents get help for teenagers and children who are addicted to video games?

If you have access to a psychologist who specializes in treating internet and video game addiction in children and can afford the service, this may be the best option.

Finding and affording help for video game addiction - easier said than done

Unfortunately, parents often find it very difficult to find psychologists who specialize in video game addiction. Given that child and teenage computer game addiction is a fairly new psychological problem, there are relatively few therapists who have training or experience offering treatment. Yes, more psychologists are starting to recognize the problem of video game addiction, but traveling across the country to meet with a specialist is not a realistic option for most people. In fact, every week I receive messages from desperate parents who have been unable to find appropriate treatment in their city, state, or even in their country.

I also receive many messages from parents stating that their therapist refuses to even consider the possibility computer game addiction. Some have actually recommended unlimited access! The theory is that preventing access just makes the game even more desirable (the “forbidden fruit” argument). The strategy of providing unlimited access with the expectation that the child will “get bored and move on” is definitely not a treatment approach I would recommend.

Additionally, even if a parent is able to find a child video game addiction specialist, fees will typically range from $150 - $200 per hour. Given that treatment is likely to span multiple sessions, these fees may simply not be affordable to many parents. On a related note, a small number of internet and video game addiction inpatient treatment centres have recently opened around the country. These facilities may be staffed with psychologists, psychiatrists, and various other mental health professionals and offer intensive 30 - 60 day overnight treatment programs. The downside? They typically cost tens of thousands of dollars, making this an option for only the very (very) wealthy.

How to Help Children Addicted to Video Games - The Guide for Parents

Frustrated by the lack of truly helpful and affordable resources for parents struggling with child and teen video game addiction, I set out to write the most helpful, clear, comprehensive, up-to-date, straight-forward, and practical book for parents on exactly what they can do to help teenagers and children who are addicted to computer and video games.

This is not a book on the history of video games, neurochemical changes in the brains of children who play them, or not so helpful advice such as “tell them to read a book instead”. There is no “filler” - just 200+ pages of direct, practical advice on how to help a teenager or child who is obsessed with video games.

The detailed step-by-step techniques and strategies are based on the same methods I use with my own clients and are specifically designed so that parents know exactly what to say and exactly what to do to help a child or teenager who has become addicted to computer games.

And…just because I really wanted to do something that no other psychologist is offering, I personally provide free and unlimited email support if parents have any questions about the information contained in the book (yes, I really do respond to all questions from readers).

Start helping your child today by instantly downloading TechAddiction’s best-selling resource “How to Help Children Addicted to Video Games - A Guide for Parents”.

I hope you found this article useful and/or informative. If you have any questions or comments, I am easy to reach. Send me an email or post your comments below.


Dr. Brent Conrad, Clinical Psychologist

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Teen and Child Video Game Addiction

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