Island University Expert Weighs in on Internet Addiction Disorder, Problematic Gaming, Ahead of Holiday Season

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Love them or hate them, there’s no denying that video games will be featured on the wish lists of many children this holiday season, and, with video game sales being shown to spike dramatically around holiday periods, many households will be preparing to add to the industry’s billion-dollar revenue (which was $4.6 billion in the U.S. alone as of March 2023).

Concurrent to the demands of our children, however, are stark warnings surrounding excessive gaming and the potential to develop an addiction to the internet. The World Health Organization has coined the formal diagnosis, Internet Addiction Disorder, in acknowledgment of the detrimental aspects of its use — which also encompasses video games. Further cautionary tales are put to parents, with news stories describing “gaming rehab” camps in China and Korea, where children are separated from their familiar comforts to detox them from compulsive gaming. How can a balance be struck? What signs should a parent look out for? Should you make that big holiday purchase this year?

First and foremost, according to TAMU-CC Assistant Professor of Counselor Education and gaming specialist, Dr. Chris Leeth, gaming is not inherently evil.

“It doesn’t cause physical harm to a person or others in the way that, say, alcohol has the potential to. What’s more, gaming gives people an avenue to form deeper connections with people around the world,” Leeth said. “For those with niche interests, or for people who are isolated or unable to get out and socialize, gaming provides the opportunity to belong somewhere; to feel less alone. We are hard-wired to seek out meaningful relationships, and gaming can bring fulfillment in that sense.”

Gaming has also become more socially accepted in terms of an organized “sport.” The Island University Esports team actively participates in tournaments through the North American Collegiate Championship, where they have the opportunity to rise through the ranks to earn prize money or scholarships. Many universities across the U.S. intently recruit Esports athletes for their teams, making it a lucrative varsity pursuit that can pave the way for a successful future career in the industry.

So, when does gaming pose a problem? According to Leeth, although we associate people neglecting their health or hygiene as a first symptom, the main hallmark of problematic gaming is a failure to maintain relationships.

“If a person is frequently gaming all night, can’t function at work, or has trouble upholding their responsibilities, we have to consider the possibility that gaming may have become a problem for them,” Leeth said. “If your partner is constantly arguing with you about how much time you are gaming, or if you’d rather be gaming than interacting with the real-life aspects of your life, such as your family, it’s time to take stock of your usage.”

While an adult must decide for themselves how much time they can devote to gaming before it affects their ability to function, children do not yet have this ability.

“When we see overuse in little kids, they usually present obsessive tendencies, or throw age-inappropriate tantrums,” Leeth said. “A child or pre-teen that stays up all night gaming can’t pay attention properly in school, or their behavior starts to cause conflict in the home.”

Leeth said it is now second nature for small children to play with their parent’s phones or tablets, which can kick-start an over-reliance on games, which game developers very much keep in mind during the manufacturing process.

“The dopamine hit from achieving something in a game is a big thing,” Leeth said. “A particular game style that we’re noticing involves ‘loot boxes’ or ‘blind bags,’ which offer the player the potential to win something for their online character, although they don’t know what they’re playing for yet. The loot boxes cater to the neurological mechanisms in our brains that attract us to games of chance — just like gambling.”

This similarity of gaming to gambling has already been the topic of discussion in the U.K., with a 2021 study conducted by the Universities of Plymouth and Wolverhampton finding that loot boxes are “structurally and psychologically akin to gambling.”

Leeth notes that a new layer of complexity is added to the loot box debate in terms of whether someone under the legal gambling age — 21 years old, in the context of the U.S. — should be permitted to interact with such a product.

“The conversation has yet to fully hit us here in North America,” Leeth shared. “Considering the newness of this type of gaming for children, we must essentially wait for them to grow up before we can fully assess the detrimental effects, if any, that loot boxes might have on them.”

Leeth, however, is adamant that while granting a child access to gaming is very much in the jurisdiction of the child’s parent or guardian, they shouldn’t be cut off from it.

“I am very pro-gaming, and my kids are too, but my kids would also be happy eating chocolate and ice cream for every meal, but I won’t let them because it would be unhealthy,” Leeth said.

“Gaming is the same, in a sense. It’s a nice treat, but it needs to happen in moderation along with the other things a kid needs to do, like homework, sports, and being with their family. If these things can all be achieved, and the child can stop gaming for the night without throwing a big tantrum, then keep playing!”