Jan. 23, 2023 — Tomer Shaked, an 18-year-old high school student from Florida, started acting around age 9. “I started spending more and more time playing video games in what I now know is a gaming addiction,” he says in an interview.
“At first I didn’t play much and always put school and homework first. And when I was 10, I still only played on weekends,” he says. “But screen time has increased. My parents set some boundaries, but I eventually learned to bend my parents’ rules to get my game ‘fix’.”
At the age of 12, gambling occupied every spare moment and was the only thing on his mind. He started lying to his parents about how much time he spent playing, which damaged his relationship with them. “All I wanted to do was play, play, play.”
Soon “the game was not only a activity that I liked. It had become the alone activity that I enjoyed.
Most young people who play video games do so “as a form of entertainment, which it’s supposed to be, but about 5% to 6% of video game users do it to the point of interfering with their lives and getting use it as an addiction,” says David Greenfield, PhD, founder and clinical director of the Connecticut-based Center for Internet and Technology Addiction.
Considering that there are approximately 2.7 billion gamers worldwide, with 75% of American households having at least one player, even 5% to 6% is a staggering number of people.
Shaked wrote a memoir, Game over, which he hopes will “highlight important topics associated with gambling addiction that can speak to both adolescents and their parents who experience this conflict in their own lives.”
He hopes other teens “will realize that they too can live full and productive lives away from a video screen”.
A problem of staggering dimensions
Video games have been around since the mid to late 1970s, but not where it is now.
“When video games met the internet, it was like mixing peanut butter and chocolate. As the popularity of the internet blossomed in the late 1980s and 1990s, that’s when that it’s gotten out of hand,” Greenfield says. His clinic treats people who have an internet content addiction, and “by far the most common area we see is video games.”
What makes video games so addicting?
Greenfield claims that the brain mechanisms involved in video game addiction are similar to the brain mechanisms involved in other addictions.
“The brain cannot tell the difference between a drug and a video game because gaming activates the same receptors responsible for all other addictions, including substances and gambling.”
The main brain chemical involved is dopamine — a neurotransmitter involved in pleasure and reward, Greenfield says. From an evolutionary perspective, dopamine is what made mating and feeding – the two most important survival activities – enjoyable and “increased the likelihood that we would continue to engage in them.”
In addiction, “you tap into these old neural pathways and hijack the reward mechanism that dopamine is responsible for,” he says. “On some strange level, your brain acts as if activity improves survival when in fact it’s the opposite.”
Soon people with this type of addiction feel that there is no other source of pleasure in their life because they have let other parts of their life fall aside in their almost exclusive focus on the game.
That’s what happened to Shaked.
“I think the appeal of the game is the constant reward system in place,” he says. “These are virtual worlds that allow you to win battles that cannot be fought in the ‘real world’ in real time, allowing you to win football and basketball matches and making you very popular in the world ‘virtual’.”
You get to the point “where you know the games and how to play them, you get attention and admiration online, which has no value in the real world but is highly addictive in the virtual world”.
And time passes smoothly. “Anyone who has ever played a video game — even someone without an addiction — can attest to the fact that time is simply wasted,” says Shaked.
Red flags for parents
What might start as a break for parents – kids are busy playing their video games and parents have a few minutes to themselves – turns into something much bigger. But progress doesn’t happen overnight, and parents can miss the clues.
- Not wanting to leave the house unless necessary
- Not wanting to go on vacation without play equipment
- refuse to go out
- Rushing into normal activities, such as meals, to resume play
Greenfield says parents should look for changes in daily living habits — less social interaction, changes in hygiene habits, less physical activity, less food, and poorer school performance.
“The majority of people who come to our center for treatment are brought by their parents or other family members. Many have stopped showering and taking care of themselves, they’ve become more isolated, their friendships are only tied to gaming or through apps they can use to communicate while gaming,” says Greenfield, who is the author of the book. Overcome Internet Addiction For Dummies.
Addictive video game can have adverse effects on the body, even leading (in extreme cases) to blood clots from sitting for so long, electrolyte imbalances from going without food for days on end, and other problems (like obesity) associated with a sedentary lifestyle. Being in front of a computer can contribute to neck and back problems, headaches, and visual problems, among other things.
Quitting the gambling habit
Shaked’s journey was unusual: At the age of 17, he had an epiphany while driving home from school. “I looked at myself and asked how I had spent my childhood. I had been in front of the computer screen more than in front of my parents. You never want to say that you have been in front of a computer screen. computer more than in front of people, because it’s quite sad.
He realized that he had “lost” himself. “I had been so lost in a fake video game world that I lost my identity and became a video game character, not a real person.” He decided to completely stop playing video games.
But most people don’t have these types of epiphanies and need family intervention or even professional help to quit gambling, Shaked notes. He doesn’t advise others to “go cold turkey”, even though he did. This creates a huge void because the person does not yet have any activity to fill this time.
Greenfield, who is also the author of the book virtual addiction, accepted. His center helps parents gradually reduce screen time by helping them install software that limits the amount of time the teenager can spend on the screen. “Children have to get used to living in real time because the brain gets used to the level of dopamine that comes from playing. They have to relearn how to experience normal pleasure in other areas of life.
Some parents and children may simply need education about gambling addiction, although others also need therapy. Some might even need residential treatment. “The needs of gaming addicts run the gamut.”
It’s important to find a therapist familiar with video game addiction, warns Greenfield. Because videos are so ubiquitous, less skilled therapists might dismiss a gambling addiction as harmless pleasure. But gambling addiction should be taken as seriously as any other addiction.
Today, Shaked leads a full and meaningful life. He practices rowing and received a university award. He completed a law scholarship for high school juniors, joined a beach clean-up crew, and was awarded first prize in a Spanish state competition. He also volunteered at Jack and Jill Foundation of America and plans to donate proceeds from sales of her book to the foundation, which helps children in disadvantaged communities access educational programs.
“The organization really touched me, and that’s why I dedicated this book to them,” he says.