US: Video-games: a murderous addiction?

At age 15, Hughstan Schlicker shot his father in the head, from behind, using a shotgun. The Mesa Arizona teenager was sentenced last week to 20 years for murdering his father who tried to stop his long hours on the computer. According to press reports, the young Schlicker said he often spent entire days on the computer and could not cope without it. How much time is "too much time" on a computer or handheld videogame? And can it become an addiction?

Those are precisely the questions posed in a national study, Pathological Video-Game Use Among Youth Aged 8 to 18, by Iowa State University psychologist Douglas Gentile and published in the journal Psychological Science in April.

While previous studies have been directed to small and selected groups, Gentile used Harris poll surveys to randomly select 1,178 youngsters in age clusters from 8 to 18 across the US . To define "pathological behaviour" he used criteria similar to those established for gambling, also a behavioural addiction.

Both gambling and video-gaming begin as entertainment, relaxation, and escape from daily concerns. But for some individuals, it grows into behaviours with negative consequences. Gentile used a scale of 11 self-reported items such as: dominates a person's life, provides a "high", requires more and more stimulation to achieve the "high", experiences withdrawal if deprived, causes conflict with other people or school or work, relapses whenever they try to quit, and so forth.

While no one criterion defined being addicted to video-gaming, a person was considered pathological if they reported at least six of the 11 symptoms, a similar method to that used by psychologists to define gambling addiction.

The average time spent playing videogames was more than 13 hours a week for all respondents. About 8% of the youngsters were pathological gamers but boys were much more likely to be pathological (12%) compared with girls (3%).

There was a strong relationship between extensive gaming and ADHD. Only 9% of boys played only once-a-month or less, while 37% of girls played at this low rate. And girls were also more likely to see their game use as a problem and try to reduce it, than were boys.

While Gentile did not address the topic, his research provides evidence that video-gaming is a major factor in the decrease in boys pursuing academic courses while girls now dominate college enrolments in developed countries.

Video-gaming increased among students of middle-school age but, unlike television watching, did not drop consistently among those in high school. There was, however, a trend toward fewer but much longer sessions.

About one in four of the students (mostly boys) played to escape, and skipped homework to do so and a fifth said they did poorly on tests and homework because of playing. Only half those surveyed reported having parental rules that tried to limit either the content or time spent on videogames.

Many of the students (again mostly boys) had access to "mature-rated" or violent games and in most cases, parents were fully aware of this. There was no correlation, however, between pathological gamers and public, private or home schooling.

Are all kids who spend long hours video-gaming potential killers or otherwise pathological? Of course not: Gentile was careful to state that this study showed correlation, not causation; time spent on this media was alone not a pathology.

That is an important distinction; the negative consequences might not be caused by the extensive time spent video-gaming but that could be due to a third unmeasured cause. There are students who spend many hours a day playing videogames without any problems.

That was not the case, however, for a now fatherless family in Mesa Arizona.

*Professor Schrock is a Kansas-based entomologist and biology teacher trainer