Today’s New York Times “Well” blog shares the results of a recent study suggesting that video games may contribute to depression in teenagers. Briefly, the study found that grade-school and middle-school students who were “more impulsive and less comfortable with other children” spent more time playing video games than other teens. Two years later, these same students were more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, and social phobias. The authors are careful to say that there’s no evidence the games caused depression, but there’s a strong correlation.
I pulled up the original article, and the authors’ objectives were to “measure the prevalence…of pathological video gaming, …to identify risk and protective factors, …and to identify outcomes for individuals who become pathological gamers.” They didn’t use the word “addiction” in their paper (well, actually, they did, but they put it in quotes), but of course the take-home message from the NY Times story is quite clear: kids can be addicted to video game playing, and this could lead to depression.
As with any extreme activity, I would not be surprised to learn that there are some kids who play games compulsively, who sacrifice food, sleep, hygiene, and other responsibilities for long periods of time. But to use words like ‘addiction’– or even the less loaded and more clinical-sounding ‘pathological gaming’– risks labeling a potentially harmless behavior as a problem, and may have little to do with the underlying motives.
What’s so pathological, anyway, about pathological gaming? Is the kid who plays video games for 30 hours a week playing more “pathologically” than the one who plays for only 10? Does the kid with lots of friends, who gets plenty of fresh air, is active in extracurriculars, and has lots of friends face a more promising future than the one who would prefer to sit at home on the XBOX360 and sometimes forgets to do his homework? Which friends are more valuable in life—the Facebook friends or the “real” friends? We know the intuitive answer to these questions, but where are the data to back up these assumptions?
The behavior itself is not the most important factor. I know some “workaholics” who work 80-plus-hour weeks; they are absolutely committed to their work but they also have rich, fulfilling personal lives and are extremely well-adjusted. I’ve also met some substance abusers who have never been arrested, never lost a job, and who seem to control their use (they often describe themselves as “functional” addicts) but who nonetheless have all the psychological and emotional hallmarks of a hard-core addict and desperately need rehabilitation.
I have no problem with researchers looking at a widespread activity like video game playing and asking whether it is changing how kids socialize, or whether it may affect learning styles or family dynamics. But when we take an activity that some kids do “a lot” and label it as pathological or an “addiction,” without defining what those terms mean, or asking what benefit these kids might derive from it, we are, at best, imposing our own standards of acceptable behavior on a generation that sees things much differently, or, at worst, creating a whole new generation of addicts that we now must treat.