Gaming Questions and Answers

By: Brandon Hayes, Ph.D., LP, CATSM

Do you have a teen to love to play video games? How do you know whether or not their gaming habit is becoming a problem? Dr. Brandon Hayes of WLCFS took some time to answer some common gaming questions for you to consider with your teens. 

How do I know if my teen’s enjoyment of gaming has gone from a pastime to an addiction?

It is important to note that there is a lot of debate regarding the classification of excessive video game playing as an addiction. In fact, the fifth and most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the book used by mental health professionals to identify and diagnose mental health conditions, does not officially recognize excessive video game playing as a formal condition. This is not to say individuals cannot become preoccupied with playing video games and, as a result of their excessive usage, experience innumerable negative consequences. However, at the present time, there is no professional classification for a video game addiction.

Regardless of whether or not a formal diagnosis exists for excessive playing of video games, there is no doubt many teens’ gaming can be problematic. My general rule of thumb is this: if you think there is a problem, there probably is one. In fact, many of the patterns that we often associate with addictions often are found with excessive video game playing. Here are some common warning signs:

  • Preoccupation: individuals cannot stop thinking about playing video games, even when they are away from their device. Oftentimes, this preoccupation interferes with their ability to pay attention in other important areas of their life.
  • Lack of control: individuals find themselves unable to stick to healthy limits of video game playing.
  • Loss of time: individuals become so engrossed in playing video games they lose track of time, often realizing several hours have elapsed when they feel it has been much less time.
  • Impaired functioning: individuals begin to neglect important other responsibilities in their life, such as academics, work, participation in family activities, social involvement, physical wellness, and their spiritual life.
  • Defensiveness or minimization: when questioned, individuals significantly under-report their actual video game usage and may become very emotionally upset and defensive.
  • Misuse of money: individuals spend more money than they can afford playing video games (i.e., purchasing games, monthly fees, within game charges, etc.) and may turn to illegal activities to fund their usage.
  • Mixed feelings: very few individuals who play video games appropriately experience any negative feelings as a result of their gaming. However, individuals who tend to misuse video games often associate negative emotions with their gaming, such as guilt, sadness, regret, and shame.

How big of a problem is gaming addiction in today’s teens? Does this seem more prevalent in one gender than the other?

We give thanks that the vast majority of teens who play video games do not report problems. To that end, research has consistently found rates of problematic gaming ranging from .5-2% in teens. In other words, very few teens who play video games demonstrate concerning patterns and do not experience negative consequences as a result of their usage. However, adolescent males are more likely to struggle with problematic video game playing than their female counterparts.

There are several characteristics that are often correlated with problematic video game playing, including impulsivity, acceptance of violence and aggression, lower social skills, and poor overall coping skills. However, it is not clear if these characteristics predispose individuals to problematic video game playing, result from excessive video game playing, or some combination of both.

What is the best way to approach my teen about their gaming habits?

  • Be proactive. Establish healthy expectations/limits to video game usage as a means of developing positive patterns from the outset. Identify consequences if the established expectations/limits are not followed.
  • Track video game playing patterns and consequences. Encourage teens to simply monitor their video game playing. Research demonstrates that many individuals who occasionally “overdo it” are well able to reduce their patterns simply by becoming more aware of them.
  • Identify alternative interests. Simply restricting video game playing is a rather ineffective means of changing the pattern. Rather, help teens identify alternative interests and activities.
  • Recognize potential underlying issues. Excessive gaming may be more of a symptom of an underlying problem rather than the actual problem itself. As noted above, individuals who are more vulnerable to excessive gaming often possess poorer social skills, less effective coping strategies, and higher levels of impulsivity than their healthy gaming peers.

What are some positive ways to prevent bad gaming habits before they turn addictive?

  • Set healthy limits for “screen time” (e.g., 1-2 hours per day).
  • Keep consoles out of bedrooms. Privacy allows for less oversight and supervision of video game playing.
  • Establish structure and routines. Set specific times of the day when teens are allowed to play video games. Suggest that teens need to take care of responsibilities (e.g., work, school assignments, chores, etc.) first before playing video games. If you have any concerns regarding your teens’ video game playing, limit their usage to a weekend activity.
  • Play alongside your teen. Playing video games with your teen allows parents to monitor what games their teens are playing and model healthy limits. In addition, a willingness to join in an activity with your teen (even one that you dislike) communicates a desire to connect and spend time with your child. 

Dr. Brandon Hayes joined WLCFS in 2006. He received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from UW-Milwaukee and completed his undergraduate degree in Psychology at UW-Green Bay. Prior to joining WLCFS, Dr. Hayes completed an internship at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center, specializing in treating clients with addictions and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In addition to his clinical work, Dr. Hayes has also served as an adjunct instructor at UW-Milwaukee and Wisconsin Lutheran College. His research on the factors influencing alcohol consumption among college students has been presented regionally and nationally. He is a member of the American Psychological Association.