It’s all over social media and in sensational headlines that digital addictions (particularly video gaming) are drowning our kids in dopamine, causing rising rates of depression and anxiety because their brains are getting hooked on the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. What’s the solution? Stop playing video games for a month, and you’ll feel better. No more anxiety or depression, right? This is utter hogwash. Here’s why:
This is a Chicken or the Egg Scenario
If video gaming didn’t increase activity in these dopaminergic pathways, no one would play them. Anything pleasurable activates specific pathways in the forebrain, where dopamine is the neurotransmitter. Gaming researchers Patrick Markey and Christopher Ferguson point out that eating pizza or ice-cream raises dopamine levels in the brain to about the same degree as video gaming.
The diagnosis of Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD) and a few of the symptoms to check off point to a problem that already exists, and video gaming isn’t the issue. In the minuscule number of those who have been diagnosed with IGD, most of them were already dealing with depression or anxiety.
Taking away their pleasure of playing video games (dopamine fast) is not going to solve the problems they have had before playing. The goal should be to focus on what’s missing in other parts of their life and find solutions to those problems.
Video gaming can alter the brain, but research is documenting positive effects, increasing spatial memory and navigation, improving executive function, and increasing the ability to solve problems and make reasoned decisions.
Could Gaming Be Good Medicine?
Many wonder if video games be prescribed, like medicine, as a treatment for some
diseases and mental disorders? And the answer is... yes!
Positive clinical trials and FDA approval are opening a new world of video games for treating attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism, depression, and more – even the brain fog from long COVID-19 and chemotherapy.
Gaming as Medicine is Poised to Grow Big
Companies and developers have been dabbling with the idea for over a decade. Akili Interactive made a racing game called EndeavorRx, which can be prescribed to children ages 8 to 12 to help improve attention. After facing some skepticism, the game went through clinical trials and won FDA approval in 2020. The game will be connected to the Roblox platform, where avatars, pets, badges, and rewards will be offered to the young players. This will encourage the children to take their “medicine” and continue playing the game.
More Companies and Investors are Getting into Games as Medicine or Therapy
Besides Akili, Nintendo and a new game publisher named DeepWell are working on developing these sorts of games. There is promise in the gaming world that games can be more than just entertainment.
Is Your Child Gaming Too Much?
Guidelines set forth by EU Kids Online suggest that parents shouldn't automatically assume that their child’s use of digital media is problematic, but they should ask themselves these questions:
Is my child physically healthy and sleeping enough?
Is my child connecting socially with family and friends (in any form)?
Is my child engaged with and achieving in school?
Is my child pursuing interests and hobbies (in any form)?
Is my child having fun and learning in their use of digital media?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, then the research suggests “these particular parents and children may need to put in place regulations and restrictions in order to address problematic use.”
In other words, it's time to help children tackle the overuse of online games by helping them achieve balance between their online and offline lives.
Cindy Kinn has a BS and MS in psychology with an emphasis in child development. With over 15 years experience teaching in the public-school sphere, she is currently a Media Psychology Ph.D. student at Fielding Graduate University. Cindy is focusing her dissertation work on contributing to the research on Internet gaming disorder (IGD), which is included in the Addendum to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) for further study. It remains to be examined what kind of disorder IGD could be. Is it a compulsion, an impulse control disorder, or a behavioral addiction? It may be up to the parent or gamer to decide whether they’ve become too dependent on gaming