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Video Games Offer Some Escape, But Cause Problems For Others

Photo of a red and black playstation controller
Ross Terrell
Developmental psychologist Dr. Sarah Coyne discusses the pros and cons of playing video games, particularly at a time when people are social distancing because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Video games have been a welcome distraction for many people while social distancing, but for a few they can create problems, too. A new study from Brigham Young University looked at video game addiction over the course of six years. 

KUER’s Caroline Ballard spoke with the study’s author Dr. Sarah Coyne. She is a developmental psychologist who teaches in BYU’s College of Family, Home and Social Sciences.

Caroline Ballard: What was it that got you interested in this subject, and what questions did you want to answer?

Sarah Coyne: I first got interested in the topic of video game addiction a number of years ago when I had a sibling that seemed to have a real problem with video games — to the point that it interfered with daily functioning and her ability to live a complete life. We recognized that there was an issue, and when I stumbled upon some of the research on video game addiction, I could identify this in my own family. 

That was quite a long time ago. The research on video game addiction was pretty brand new at that time. Most of it was just a year or two in length, and we wanted to find out what happens long term. Is there any sort of a longitudinal effect of a video game addiction or is this something that just disappears after maybe a year or two?

CB: So did you find that video games are addictive?

SC: The good news is that for 90% of our sample, video games were not addictive. The vast majority of people who play video games can do so in a really healthy way. 

But then we found that about 10% of our sample started high on video games symptoms that seemed to increase over a six year period of time during adolescence and into emerging adulthood. And it's that 10% group that we're most concerned about.

CB: What features of video games make them truly addictive for some people?

SC: It depends on the individual and depends on the video game. But often games are designed to be addictive in nature, because the more you play, the more you feel like you want to spend your money on the games, the more money that the producers get. 

A lot of them have these never ending storylines and so you feel like you need to keep playing. A lot of them will have new skins or new weapons or the newest thing that you can buy, and so you feel like you're constantly invested and need to continue to spend more time or money to get that same feeling.

CB: You say in the study that for most people, video games are relatively harmless, but there are still stereotypes about gamers — that they're anti-social or living in their mom's basement. Do you worry about the results of this study contributing at all to stereotypes?

SC: I don't worry so much about it. I do think that video game addiction is a real thing, and it's something to look out for. But then again, our study went against stereotypes in some ways. At that final wave [of the study], we also measured how everyone was doing, and we found no differences between the groups in terms of their financial level, their financial stress, whether they went to college or were already working. And so the stereotype of “the gamer in the mom's basement who can't hold down a job” — we didn't really find evidence of this, at least during emerging adulthood.

CB: Right now, many people are turning to video games as a way to connect with people and cope during social distancing. Is there a positive role video games can play in people's lives?

SC: Absolutely. I think that video games on the whole can be really beneficial for an adolescent or a family, and especially right now. 

My eldest son is 15 years old, and he loves video games. I've noticed how important they've become to him right now as a way to connect with his friends who he obviously can't see. It kind of used to bug me a little bit when he was gaming into the night, but now I really like when he's playing Fortnite with his buddies, and I can hear the chatter. I can hear him laughing, and he gets that sense of connection. 

And so video games are not bad in and of themselves. There's a lot of other research that suggests that video games can be beneficial on a host of different levels. It's when they cross into this line of [being] pathological in nature that we really have a concern.

CB: What does true video game addiction look like, and are there signs people should watch out for?

SC: If you're having withdrawal symptoms when you stop playing — physiological withdrawal symptoms. If you're obsessing over video games, spending all of your time thinking about a video game or when you can next play. If you're having tolerance symptoms where you need more and more gaming or excitement, or you need to spend more money to get that same level of high. If you're having significant conflict with family or with friends, that's another big sign. So those are the signs, the major ones that I would personally look out for if I had a kid — and I do — who really likes video games to make sure it doesn't cross over into the warning zone.

Caroline Ballard hosts All Things Considered at KUER. Follow her on Twitter @cballardnews

Caroline is the Assistant News Director
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