At age 15, Hughstan Schlicker shot his father in the head, from behind, using a shotgun. The Mesa Arizona teenager was sentenced last week to 20 years for murdering his father who tried to stop his long hours on the computer. According to press reports, the young Schlicker said he often spent entire days on the computer and couldn’t cope without it.
How much time is “too much time” on a computer or handheld videogame?
And can it become an addiction?
Those are precisely the questions posed in a national study: “Pathological Video-Game Use Among Youth Ages 8 to 18” by Iowa State University psychologist Douglas Gentile and published this April in the journal Psychological Science.
While previous studies have been directed to small and selected groups, Gentile used Harris poll surveys to randomly select 1,178 youngsters in age clusters from 8 to 18 across the United States. To define “pathological behavior” he used criteria similar to those established for gambling, also a behavioral addiction. Both gambling and videogaming begin as entertainment, relaxation, and escape from daily concerns. But for some individuals, it grows into behaviors with negative consequences.
Gentile used a scale of 11 self-reported items such as: dominates a person’s life, provides a “high,” requires more and more stimulation to achieve the “high,” experiences withdrawal if deprived, causes conflict with other people or school or work, relapses whenever they try to quit, etc. While no one criteria defined being addicted to videogaming, a person was considered pathological if they reported at least six of the eleven symptoms, a similar method to what is used by psychologists to define gambling addiction.
The average amount of time spent playing videogames was over 13 hours per week for all respondents. About 8 percent of all youngsters were pathological gamers. But boys were much more likely to be pathological gamers (12 percent) compared to girls (3 percent). There was a strong relationship between extensive gaming and ADHD. Only 9 percent of boys played only once-a-month or less, while 37 percent of girls played at this low rate. And girls were also more likely to see their game use as a problem and try to reduce it, than were boys. Although Gentile did not address it, his research is evidence that videogaming is a major factor in the decrease in boys pursuing academics, as girls now dominate college in developed countries.
Videogaming increased in middle school ages, but unlike television watching, did not drop consistently in high school. There was a trend toward fewer but much longer sessions.
Approximately one-fourth of the students (primarily boys) played to escape and skipped homework to do so. About one-fifth said they did poorly on tests and homework because of playing.
Only half of the students surveyed reported having parental rules that tried to limit either the content or time spent on videogames. Many (mostly boys) had access to “mature-rated” or violent games and in most cases, parents were fully aware of this. However, there was no correlation between pathological gamers and public, private or home schooling.
Are all kids who spend long hours videogaming potential killers or otherwise pathological? Of course not. The researcher was careful to state that this study showed correlation, not causation; time spent on this media was alone not a pathology. That is an important distinction; the negative consequences might not be caused by the extensive time spent videogaming, but that both could be due to a third unmeasured cause.
There are students who spend many hours a day playing videogames without any problems.
But that was not the case for a now fatherless family in Mesa Arizona.