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Published: Friday, 4/24/2009

Parents must step up to halt kids' gaming obsession

I KNEW it. Somehow, I just knew it. In the largest study of its kind, researchers at Iowa State University concluded that a sizable number of young people who play video games exhibit signs of addiction to gaming. They found that almost one in 10 American children, ages 8 to 18, may be addicted to video games the way others are addicted to drugs or gambling.

While there have been lots of studies about video games bringing out the worst in kids, they usually deal with violent behavior. This one is the first to document the prevalence of video game addiction as measured by adapted criteria used to diagnose pathological gambling.

Not surprisingly, the study found that 88 percent of the nation's children in the targeted age group play video games. But of the 45 million children in the country who fall into that category, research suggests that more than 3 million are addicted to video games "or at least have problems of the magnitude" that call for help.

Douglas Gentile, the Iowa State University psychologist who conducted the study, said kids aren't just playing a lot, their gaming is interfering with their life, their school work, their interaction with family and friends. All they think about is the game or planning the next opportunity to play.

Parents who have witnessed the transformation of relatively normal youngsters into what the study called "pathological gamers," knew it all along. But now we have some validation.

When I learned that four times as many boys as girls were considered at risk for numerous addictive symptoms involving video gaming, I nodded knowing. Months before my son's birthday all he wanted was a Nintendo DS.

Being a carry-over from the Stone Age, I didn't even know what a DS was but eventually got my hands on a used one and my son was hooked. He was in 9-year-old heaven mastering all sorts of video games on the small, hand-held gadget that was as much fun as it was status symbol among peers.

Initially we didn't see any harm in his gaming obsession and even got a kick out of our third grader effusing that he was simply made for the DS. But the cuteness of his total attachment to the electronic device was swiftly replaced with growing concern.

Truth is, my kid couldn't put it down. He'd pace in front of a timer when we insisted he share the game with his sister. He needed his video game fix, just had to get to the "next level" of a game on the tiny screen.

Before long his fingers flew expertly over the controls and he'd become oblivious to life around him. When his exasperated mom sent him outside to play with a buddy and discovered both of them lying under a tree with their respective video games, she decide it was time for him to go cold turkey.

Mr. Gentile focused on kids who had hit that stage, whose lives were out of whack from being under the influence of nonstop video game playing. He produced a series of questions about video game use that were put to a nationwide sample of children and adolescents in a 2007 Harris poll.

Fully 8.5 percent of the nearly 1,200 kids surveyed showed multiple symptoms of behavior addiction that included spending increasing amounts of time and money on video games to feel the same level of excitement, lying about the length of playing time, trying to play less and failing, and restlessness or irritability when trying to reduce or stop playing.

"What's most concerning to me is really the total percentage, just the vast number of kids that are having real problems in their lives because they play games, and they may not know how to stop it," said Mr. Gentile, whose research is published in the May issue of the journal Psychological Science. But if kids don't know how to stop it, parents do.

They already know if gaming is causing problems for their kids and family and must decide whether to be part of the solution or continue to play a role in the problem. Remember, said one professor of pediatrics, "parenting is a verb, not a noun."

Enforce boundaries with your kids and teenagers instead of acquiescing to addictive video game-playing habits because it's easier. Just say no to more console time if your child can't.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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