(Family Magazine October 2010 1st Issue)
Playing computer games may seem to be a harmless pastime, but for many, it has become an unhealthy addiction. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the prevalence of online game addiction in Canada is now one out of every ten people, aged 15 and over. An online survey showed that a prevalence rate of internet addiction in America is 3% to 10%. (Busko, 2008). Aboujaoude et al. (2006) conducted a random telephone survey of 2,513 adults and up to 14% of the respondents have some aspects of symptoms of internet addiction.
Several international studies showed an alarming rate of internet addiction in adolescents: Park, Kim and Cho (2008) reported that 10.9% of their 903 teenage Korean participants are at risk of internet addiction; Wang, Wang and Fu (2008) reported that among the 31,915 participants of Chinese elementary and middle school students of internet users, 6.6% are suffering from internet addiction.
Symptoms of internet addicts are consistent with those with alcohol and illicit drug dependence. They show symptoms such as preoccupation with gaming even when offline, interpersonal problems resulting directly from inappropriate internet use, using the internet to escape from depression or mood problems, secretively using the internet or hiding their internet activities, spending more time online than intended, and feeling difficulty with staying offline 4 days in a row. (Aboujaoude et al., 2006).
A few years ago, China opened a clinic for “internet addiction”. In July 2005, ABC NEWS interviewed the clinic director, Dr. Tao Ran. He said, “All the children here have left school because they are playing games or in chat rooms everyday,… they are suffering from depression, nervousness, fear and unwillingness to interact with others, panic and agitation. They also have sleep disorders, shakes and numbness in their hands.” (Crienglish.com. 2005).
Why are so many children, youth, and even adults becoming addicted to online games? Think about how you feel when you experience something pleasant – when you are praised for your outstanding performance by your boss, when you helped your team win a basketball game, or when your girl/boy friend gave you the first kiss. At that moment, your limbic system is doing its job. The limbic system controls our emotional responses, such as feeling pleasure. For example, when we eat candies, the good feelings motivate us to keep doing the same behavior. Because our natural pleasures such as eating are necessary for human survival, the limbic system serves to produce the desire to drive us to seek what we need. (NIDA for Teens).
Current neurologists found that excessive dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is released into the limbic system that causes “pleasure”, appears to be related to the development of addictions. Researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute (MRI) gained some insights on the relationship between dopamine and addictions from people with Parkinson’s disease. Patients with Parkinson’s lack dopamine. When they took too much medication to stimulate dopamine, they developed addictions such as pathological gambling, compulsive shopping or even hypersexuality. (Derfel. A., 2010).
When a child plays internet games for the first time, he/she experiences intense feelings of enjoyment. The reward circuitry in his/her brain is activated, particularly the neurotransmitter dopamine, carrying the message of pleasure. This leads him to play more, followed by the brain secreting more dopamine, resulting in an unnatural flood of neurotransmitters. When the brain senses excessive dopamine, it will begin to cut down its secretion. The child experiences a down from this regulatory control. After a period of time, the dopamine’s effect is severely weakened or damaged and it can no longer activate circuits to bring the same level of pleasure. Normal activities no longer bring the message of pleasure. The child feels bored, empty and depressed. In fact, without games, life may seem joyless (NIDA for Teens.)
Now the child needs to play more games just to bring dopamine up to the normal level. Increased frequency of game playing is needed to create a dopamine flood, to feel good again. This effect of internet addiction is known as “tolerance” in drug abuse. Changes in the brain drive a child to seek out and play compulsively, despite negative consequences such as not doing homework, arguing with parents, skipping meals, not wanting to go to school. In adults, it may be absence from work, marital conflicts, physical and mental problems. In severe cases, people neglect their basic physical needs that lead to severe health conditions, even death. (NIDA for Teens).
Although we know what happens to the brain when someone becomes addicted, not all children who play games will become addicted. We cannot predict the amount of time a person can play games before becoming addicted. Each person’s unique genetic makeup and the environment both play a role. Before any potential devastating consequences happen to your child and your family, you as a parent must use discernment and honestly ask three questions, “How is my child being affected by the internet or online games? Is he/she showing addictive behaviors? Am I addicted to the internet myself?”
A good practice is to set limits on your child’s internet usage or game time every day and make sure you enforce your rules. Keeping the computer in a public place will help you supervise your child. Involving your child in outdoor activities or regularly planning outdoor family activities will help drawing your child’s attention away from staring at the computer screen. Identifying other meaningful or attractive activities for your child provides replacement to the online games. Compared with just asking your child not to play the online games, replacement is much more effective. My 16-year-old son joined cross-country and track last year. Recently he told me that, “When I run, the dopamine in my brain is working. Running makes me happier than playing online games!”
Some people may use internet to cope with their unmet emotional needs or avoid current life difficulties without being aware of it. Therefore, it is important for parents to take courage to assess the underlying issues that are currently affecting you or your child and to address them from a healthy perception before any serious matters come up. It is necessary to seek professional help when you don’t know where or how to begin.
Aboujaoude, E., Koran, L., Gamel, N., Large, M., & Serpe, R. (2006). Potential Markers for Problematic Internet Use: A Telephone Survey of 2,513 Adults. CNS Spectrums, 11(10), 750-755.
Busko, M. (2008). Internet Addiction: Fact or Fiction? Medscape Medical News. Crienglish.com. China’s Web Addicts Seek Treatment. (http://firstname.lastname@example.org) Posted on July 2, 2005. Retrieved June,4, 2010).
Derfel. A. Study Offers Insight into Brain Chemistry Behind Addiction.Canwest News Service. Retrieved from www.canada.com on June 4, 2010. National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. Brain & Addiction. (http://teens.drugabuse.gov/facts/facts_brain2.php). Retrieved from June 4, 2010.
Park, S., Kim, J., & Cho, C. (2008). Prevalence of internet addiction and correlations with family factors among South Korean adolescents. Adolescence, 43(172), 895-909.
Wang, Y., Wang, J., & Fu, D. (2008). Epidemiological investigation on Internet addiction among Internet users in elementary and middle school students. Chinese Mental Health Journal, 22(9), 678-682.