Video games have become an increasingly popular form of entertainment for children and adolescents in recent years. While many games can be fun and harmless, others can have addictive qualities that can be concerning for parents. In this article, we will explore why some video games can be addictive and why parents should be concerned, especially for children aged 9 and up. As a therapist, I have seen first hand the negative impact that video game addiction can have on young people. It is important to understand that the adolescent brain is still developing, and excessive video game use during this time can disrupt this development process. Virtual reality (VR) environments have become increasingly popular, particularly with the development of devices like the Oculus. While these devices offer a unique and immersive experience, there are concerns about the potential negative effects they may have on the developing brain.
One reason why video games can be addictive is because of their reward systems. Many games provide players with a sense of achievement through rewards such as points, coins, and levels. These rewards can trigger the brain’s pleasure centers, releasing dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This can create a sense of satisfaction and motivation to continue playing.
However, some games are designed to be intentionally addictive. Game designers use psychological tactics to keep players engaged and motivated, such as using variable rewards and creating a sense of urgency to keep players playing. In some cases, game developers may use these tactics to encourage players to spend money on in-game purchases, such as loot boxes or virtual currency.
Another reason why video games can be addictive is because of their immersive qualities. Many games provide players with a sense of escape from reality, transporting them to virtual worlds filled with adventure and excitement. This can be especially appealing for children and adolescents who may be dealing with stress or difficult emotions in their real lives. Games such as “Minecraft” or “Fortnite” can provide a sense of social connection with other players, which can be especially appealing for children who may be struggling with social relationships in their real lives.
Effects on Brain Development
Research suggests that virtual environments can have a similar impact on the developing brain as video games. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for decision-making, impulse control, and prioritization, can be negatively impacted by excessive use of VR environments. Studies have found that the overstimulation of the prefrontal cortex can lead to decreased gray matter and altered functional connectivity in the brain (1, 2).
In addition, VR environments can have a significant impact on the development of spatial awareness and perception. A study conducted on rats found that exposure to virtual environments during a critical period of development led to impaired spatial memory and increased anxiety-like behavior (3).
Overstimulation of the prefrontal cortex, which can occur with excessive use of virtual environments, can lead to decreased gray matter and altered functional connectivity in the brain. Gray matter refers to the brain tissue that contains the cell bodies of neurons and is involved in various functions such as memory, attention, and decision-making. Alterations in the amount or organization of gray matter can lead to changes in cognitive functioning and behavior (1).
Studies have found that video game addiction and excessive use of virtual environments can be associated with decreased gray matter in regions of the brain involved in impulse control and decision-making, such as the prefrontal cortex (2, 3). This may lead to difficulties in regulating behavior and making sound decisions, which can have negative consequences on academic and social functioning.
Excessive use of virtual environments like Oculus may lead to overstimulation of the prefrontal cortex, which can cause decreased gray matter and altered functional connectivity in the brain. This can result in changes in cognitive function, including:
- Impaired Executive Functioning: Executive functioning refers to a set of cognitive processes that are responsible for planning, organizing, and regulating behavior. The prefrontal cortex plays a critical role in executive functioning, and alterations in gray matter in this region may lead to impairments in planning, decision-making, and impulse control.
- Attention Deficits: Alterations in gray matter in regions of the brain responsible for attention, such as the parietal and occipital lobes, may lead to attention deficits and difficulties in maintaining focus on tasks.
- Memory Impairments: Alterations in gray matter in regions of the brain responsible for memory, such as the hippocampus, may lead to memory impairments and difficulties in learning and retaining new information.
- Reduced Cognitive Flexibility: Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to switch between tasks or adapt to changing situations. Alterations in gray matter in regions of the brain responsible for cognitive flexibility, such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, may lead to difficulties in adapting to new situations or switching between tasks.
It is important to note that the extent and nature of cognitive changes that may arise from overstimulation and decreased gray matter in the brain may vary depending on various factors such as the age of the individual, the duration and intensity of VR use, and the specific regions of the brain affected.
Overall, excessive use of virtual environments like Oculus may have potential negative effects on cognitive functioning due to overstimulation and decreased gray matter in the brain. It is important to monitor and set limits on VR use, as well as encourage a balance of other activities, to promote healthy brain development and cognitive functioning.
Several factors contribute to the addictive nature of video games for teenagers:
- Reward Systems: Video games often use reward systems to keep players engaged and motivated. These rewards can be in the form of points, coins, levels, or other types of incentives. For example, in the popular game “Fortnite,” players earn “V-Bucks” for completing challenges and missions, which can be used to purchase new skins, emotes, and other in-game items.
The brain’s pleasure centers can be activated by these types of rewards, which can create a sense of pleasure and motivation to continue playing. However, excessive gaming and a preoccupation with rewards can lead to neglect of other activities and responsibilities, such as schoolwork, chores, and social relationships.
- Social Interaction: Video games can provide a sense of social connection for teenagers, especially when they play online with friends or other players. For example, in the game “Minecraft,” players can build and explore virtual worlds with others, collaborating and communicating to achieve their goals.
However, excessive gaming can also lead to social isolation and decreased face-to-face social skills. This can result in negative consequences for long-term social and emotional development, such as difficulty forming and maintaining relationships, increased feelings of loneliness and depression, and decreased empathy for others.
- Escapism: Video games can provide a sense of escape from the stresses of everyday life. For teenagers who may be dealing with academic, social, or personal challenges, video games can provide a way to unwind and escape from these pressures. For example, playing a game like “Animal Crossing” can provide a peaceful and relaxing environment for players to escape to.
However, excessive gaming as a coping mechanism can lead to avoidance of problems and interfere with healthy coping strategies, such as seeking social support or engaging in physical activity. This can lead to negative consequences such as increased anxiety and depression.
- Challenge: Video games often provide a sense of challenge, which can be rewarding for teenagers who enjoy problem-solving and overcoming obstacles. For example, in the game “Portal,” players must use logic and critical thinking to solve complex puzzles.
However, excessive gaming can lead to a preoccupation with achievement and competition, which can interfere with other areas of life, such as academic and social development. This can lead to negative consequences such as decreased motivation to engage in other activities, decreased academic performance, and increased conflict in social relationships.
- Immersive Experience: Video games often provide an immersive experience that can be engaging and captivating for teenagers. The use of virtual environments, interactive storylines, and engaging characters can create a sense of investment in the game world and keep players coming back for more. For example, in the game “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,” players can explore a vast open world filled with interesting characters and engaging storylines.
However, excessive gaming can lead to a blurring of reality and fantasy, which can interfere with healthy cognitive development and lead to decreased academic performance. This can result in negative consequences such as decreased creativity, decreased attention span, and decreased problem-solving skills.
Overall, these factors can be concerning for parents because excessive gaming can interfere with healthy development in several areas, such as social, emotional, and cognitive functioning. It is important for parents to monitor their child’s gaming habits and set limits to ensure that gaming is not interfering with other important activities and responsibilities.
It is important to note that not all teenagers who play video games will become addicted, and that individual factors such as personality, social environment, and mental health can also contribute to addiction risk. However, the above factors can make video games particularly compelling and addictive for some teenagers.
If you are concerned that your child may be becoming addicted to virtual environments, there are several strategies that you can try to help them regain a healthy balance in their use of technology. Here are some strategies you may consider:
- Set Limits: Set limits on the amount of time your child can spend in virtual environments. This can help to establish a healthy balance between technology use and other activities. You may also want to consider setting specific times during the day when technology use is allowed.
- Encourage Other Activities: Encourage your child to participate in other activities that they enjoy, such as sports, music, or art. This can help to diversify their interests and provide alternative sources of enjoyment beyond virtual environments.
- Monitor Technology Use: Monitor your child’s technology use and make sure that they are not spending excessive amounts of time in virtual environments. This can also help you to identify any potential issues before they become more serious.
- Encourage Socialization: Encourage your child to socialize with their peers in person, rather than solely through virtual environments. This can help them to develop social skills and build relationships outside of the digital world.
- Seek Professional Help: If you are concerned that your child’s technology use is becoming problematic, consider seeking professional help. A mental health professional can provide guidance and support for your child and your family.
- Lead by Example: As a parent, it is important to model healthy technology use for your child. Make sure that you are also setting limits on your own technology use and engaging in other activities beyond virtual environments.
Remember that each child and family is unique, and the strategies that work best will vary depending on individual circumstances. It is important to approach the issue with an open mind and a willingness to work collaboratively with your child to find a healthy balance in their use of technology.
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