Video game addiction: Does it hinder children’s development?

Dr. Paul Weigle discusses video game addiction to a crowd of about 80 parents at the library on Oct. 3. — Peter Yankowski photo

How do you reach a kid who would rather blast digital zombies and humans in a video game than go outside and play?

That was a concern raised by parents during a presentation by Dr. Paul Weigle on “digital addiction” at the Ridgefield Library on Wednesday, Oct. 3.

Weigle, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Hartford Healthcare, gave an hour-long presentation on video games, and their effect on developing minds. The lecture was one in a series of talks for parents called “parenting the selfie generation,” hosted by the library and public schools.

He started the presentation off at the beginning of the home video game craze — Pong, which went on sale in 1975. The video game industry has exploded since then, Weigle explained — last year the industry was valued at over $100 billion.

“This is big business — bigger than the music industry, bigger than the movie industry,” said Weigle. “This has become an entertainment juggernaut.”

Release

Addiction to those games is a growing area of concern for parents and child-development experts. In South Korea and China, Internet and video game addiction is considered the number one public health crisis facing teens, according to Weigle.

For kids who become truly hooked, gaming releases the same “massive release” of dopamine, a chemical released by the brain as a motivation reward, as in those who use recreational drugs, Weigle said.

The most addictive games are often ones where a player is rewarded for becoming totally immersed — including online shooters (FortNite), or role-playing-games (World of Warcraft), Weigle said.

About 80 people — an overwhelming majority of them parents — showed up for the talk. Only a handful of them said they played games on their own, or tried to play games with their kids.

“It’s not that much fun, right? They beat us, they’re better at it than us,” Weigle said.

Among boys, who spend about twice as much time playing video games as girls, five-and-a-half hours of daily screen time is common. It’s a phenomenon that’s been made worse in recent years with the advancement of smartphones, which mean that kids are “walking around with a pretty powerful video game system in their pockets,” Weigle said

Moderation

But Weigle made it clear that he’s not against video games. In moderation, games can help kids bond and feel included with their peers, he said.

They also help kids learn to multi-task since players of shooting games, like FortNite, are constantly managing inventories like health and ammo.

He said there’s also evidence that games are displacing other, riskier activities among teens, such as unprotected sex.

“They may be sexting each other but nobody’s getting pregnant,” said Weigle, which was met with laughter from the audience.

Violence

Many of the parents who asked questions at the end of Weigle’s presentation raised concerns over the amount of violence present in games like FortNite, where players digitally slay one another with everything from axes to shotguns, pistols, and grenades.

Several parents asked whether there was any connection between violent content in games and school shootings. But Weigle said that while some of the more prominent mass shooters had used video games as a training tool to plan their attack, the sample size of mass shooters is too small to draw a direct connection.

“The kids that are playing FortNite are not going out and being violent, by and large,” he told the crowd.

Usage

Other parents asked repeatedly about the right amount of time for kids to spend in front of screen.

While Weigle hesitated to give an exact number, he suggested parents could use tools available online to figure out an appropriate limit on time spent on screens.

“Studies have shown that the kids that do roughly about two hours of screen time seem to do okay,” Weigle said. That includes time spent watching Netflix or surfing the web.

Nick Simard, a Ridgefield father, said he was concerned about screen time, because he learned recently that kids did their work at school on Chromebooks. At the same time, his son has expressed interest in becoming a software developer.

“I don’t want to stifle that,” he explained.

Weigle said the roughly two-hour limit on the computer — which parents should adapt for their own kids’ schedules — did not apply to academic work.

Gummy bears

Jan Triani, a mom of three, said that she finally caved and allowed her oldest son to play FortNite on the weekends.  

“I worry about inclusion … it’s against every fiber in my body to let him play this game with guns.”

But, she added, for a moment it allows her to feel “like a cool mom.”

Like FortNite, she won’t let her children eat ice cream every night.

“But am I going to let my kid eat a bowl of ice cream with gummy bears on it one night? You bet.”

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