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When Cindy W. used to sit down for "just a few minutes" to play a game of Spider or Freecell, two solitaire-like card games on her computer, she would get up hours later, wondering where the time had gone--time that was lost forever.
"Playing games was a quick feel-good, but over the long haul it was hard on my self-esteem because I knew I was wasting time," she says. "I was taking time away from other things that would have made more of a difference--playing piano, painting, sewing, writing--all things I love and could have gotten better at or gotten something out of."
Like many people with behavioral addictions, such as gambling or shopping, video and online gamers have a compulsive habit that can be hard to break. But is gaming an actual addiction? The jury may still be out as far as the medical community is concerned, but few would argue that computer gaming is not on the rise. In 2008, video game revenues will come close to $40 billion, according to a July 2008 report by IBISWorld (Industry and Company Research Reports and Information).
"It's a heated topic in our home," says Becky A. "The problem with my husband and sons is that they see computer gaming as just down time, while I see it as a total waste of time. When I see my husband battling a dragon on World of Warcraft, I go a little nuts, thinking, 'He should be working!' "
Swords, sorcery … and seizures?
In addition to putting a strain on relationships, video and computer games can have associated health risks. Common physical problems stemming from computer overuse can include repetitive stress injuries, headaches, backaches, eye strain, lack of sleep and even seizures.
"I would get a muscle ache just above my elbow that I'm pretty sure was from so much repetitive mouse use," says Cindy W. Her ability to think clearly also suffered somewhat. "I found that any time I had a decision to make that I didn't want to make, I would suddenly feel like sitting down to a game or two."
The effect of childhood gaming on health is only recently being understood, especially the link to obesity. In a 2005 study, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that kids aged 8 to 18 spend more time (44.5 hours per week) in front of computers, television and video games than on any other activity except sleeping. Those hours spent sitting instead of moving are clearly not helping the nation's obesity problem.
Prescription for play
Parents can take a number of positive steps in order to ensure that computer and video game use is a healthy, happy part of childhood. And those with spouses who are addicted to gaming may find these guidelines useful, too:
- Establish rules and stick to them: Be clear about what, when and where it's OK to play, and discuss the reasons for sticking to the game plan.
- Keep computers and video game consoles in the family room so you can monitor how much time your children are playing--and which games they're on.
- Is your child angry, aggressive or withdrawn before, during and after gaming? Talk about inappropriate behaviors before they escalate.
- Whenever possible, make gaming a group activity in which family or friends can all interact.
Keep the lines of communication open and the rules clear. Both kids and adults need to know what's acceptable and what's not. If your significant other is playing EverQuest for 10 hours straight, you have to tell him or her that it's a problem. No need to throw the game console out the window--just sit down calmly and discuss your needs.
Pulling the plug
If you don't see any change in behavior, this could be a signal that your loved one has a problem. According to the Center for Online Addiction, some warning signs for this include:
- Playing for ever-increasing amounts of time
- Thinking about gaming while taking part in other activities
- Gaming to escape from real-life problems, anxiety or depression
- Lying to friends and family to conceal gaming
- Feeling irritable when trying to cut down on gaming
Getting help for video game addiction can be problematic. Since the AMA has not yet designated video-game addiction as a mental disorder, targeted therapy is generally not covered by most insurance plans. However, anyone addicted to gaming is likely to have relationship issues or behavioral problems. They may also suffer from depression. In fact, excessive gaming can often be more of a symptom of other issues--especially for adults--because it provides an escape from reality.
Computer and video games can be fun and exciting--they help develop problem solving skills, and new games like the Nintendo Wii Fit encourage the development of fitness, balance and coordination. But too much of a good thing can lead to problems. So know the signs--and know when to say "game over."
About the Author
Lisa Cannon has been a writer and editor for nearly 20 years. She writes about everything from the health benefits of journal writing to the best ways to recycle computer hardware. She lives in beautiful Portland, Ore.