Gaming Addiction in College A Strategy Guide to Understanding Student Video Game Addictions

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Dr. Lori Whatley, Licensed Marriage &
Family Therapist
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Shannon Lee Read bio

Playing video games for hours on end might seem like a rite of passage for college students. But what happens when that time devoted to video games begins to negatively affect other aspects of a person’s life? Then it might be a gaming addiction. The World Health Organization now recognizes Gaming Disorder as part of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD). Though some experts prefer the term “disorder” to “addiction,” gaming disorder is quite similar to addiction in numerous ways.

This guide takes a look at gaming addiction, helping explain why video games can cause issues when playing at length, how to identify a problem as it arises and how to get help. We’ll also take a look at expert advice that can keep students on track for great grades—not just leveling up!

FAQ: Understanding Video Game Addiction in College

There is nothing inherently wrong with video games. But sometimes, they can lead to serious problems for the individual playing them. Here’s more about recognizing the line between just having fun and becoming addicted to video games.

What is a video game addiction?

Addiction is defined by Psychology Today as a neurological condition where an individual will continue to engage in certain behaviors in order to achieve a reward, even if there are negative or detrimental consequences that outweigh those benefits. The National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens further defines addiction as the inability to stop an activity, such as gambling, using illicit drugs or playing a video game despite having the desire to.

“We know that the computer is very addictive for those at risk of addiction,” says Dr. Lori Whatley, a clinical psychologist who has studied video game addiction. “Gamers experience the rush of the neurotransmitter dopamine, when winning, just like those addicted to gambling. Dopamine is a brain chemical connected to addiction which temporarily elevates mood. Gaming is considered a type of impulse control disorder equivalent to other unmanageable addictions.”

But there is good news for those who think they might be suffering from gaming addiction. “Addicted gamers respond to 12 step programs of recovery similarly to addicts with other types of addiction,” Whatley points out.

How many college students experience video game addiction?

Curious about how many college students are gaming addicts? Here are a few numbers:

  • Male and female adults play video games at roughly the same rate,
    50 percent and 48 percent, respectively. However, with young adults (those aged 18–29), men were more likely to play video games than women (77 versus 57 percent). (Source)
  • Approximately 8.5 percent of individuals aged 8 to 18 pathologically play video games, which means they play them so often that it actually harms them and creates problems in other parts of their lives. (Source)
  • 6.9 percent of American young adults aged 18 to 24 are preoccupied with internet gaming. (Source)
  • Over 5 percent of young adults experience withdrawal symptoms when they are not playing an internet video game. (Source)
  • Over 8 percent of American young adults aged 18 to 24 are unsuccessful when trying to control the amount of internet video games they play. (Source)
  • Over 3 percent of young adults have lost or jeopardized a relationship, job or educational opportunity as a direct result of their internet video game activities. (Source)

Why should students be concerned about an addictive video game habit?

A gaming problem often begins innocently enough. “Students often begin this addictive gaming early in life, while still at home,” Whatley explains. “It is exacerbated when they go off to college, and don’t have the monitors on their computers, or parents looking over their shoulders. This activity typically begins in middle school as fun and escalates as it becomes a stress reliever and coping mechanism for students. Their brain becomes hijacked by the games and they are unable to stop the compulsive behavior.”

The result? “Over 2 million college students are addicted to gaming in the US,” Whatley says.

The time spent on gaming takes away from time for study, which can result in devastating consequences. “The average college student addicted to gaming spends 5–8 hours per day on gaming and a minimum of 31 hours per week,” Whatley says. That’s almost the equivalent of a full-time job. The time and energy devoted to video games means less time for other things as well, such as socializing, building healthy relationships, or going to class. The results can include social isolation, failing grades, loss of scholarships, lack of networking opportunities and possibly even withdrawal from college.

What has contributed to more college students experiencing video game addiction?

Video games have been around for a very long time— why are they now becoming a problem? The ubiquitous nature of video games is certainly a factor. Access to video games used to be limited to a console that was tethered to a television screen. Today, video games are accessible with a swipe on a smartphone, putting immense computing power at anyone’s fingertips. That temptation can be enough to allow for significant overuse.

Besides that, there’s simply the matter of more people playing video games, which leads to peer pressure to join in. Even as far back as 2008, 99 percent of boys and 94 percent of girls were playing video games. Of those of college age, 18 to 24, have recently played a game on the internet. The video game industry shows no signs of slowing down in providing new fodder for players.

And in fact, colleges are embracing video games in a whole new way with the rise of eSports. This organized gaming brings in a great deal of revenue and makes stars out of the highest-ranking players. Projections for 2018 show eSports revenue topping $900 million, which is more than a 35 percent increase over the 2017 year. Several dozen colleges now have their own eSports teams; some even offer scholarships for their student players.

Is playing video games always bad?

Gaming isn’t always a problem—it can actually be a fun, engaging and enjoyable activity. Besides that, video games provide more benefits than meet the eye. These benefits can be derived from gaming, assuming, the gaming is in moderation:

How Video Game Addiction Impacts Learning & Academic Success

Anything done in excess, including video games, can be a bad thing. The key is moderation. When college students take their video game hobby too far, it can lead to problems with class and grades—or potentially even more serious consequences.

  • Lower grades.

    “Video gaming is often the root cause for failing grades for college students,” Whatley says. Grades play a major role in a student’s future plans, whether it’s graduate school or post-graduate employment. Having a lower GPA can mean not getting accepted into a graduate school or not receiving an offer from an employer after graduation. “One red flag for college students gaming addiction is a warning letter to parents that the student’s grades are in trouble,” Whatley points out.

  • Reduced learning.

    Some students might be able to keep their grades up despite their video game addiction, but they can still suffer academically by missing out on learning opportunities. For instance, spending a summer playing video games instead of working, interning or taking summer classes means a lost opportunity to learn and gain valuable real-world experience. And thanks to the sleep lost to gaming, when they do attend class, they might not be able to give it their full attention.

  • Financial consequences.

    Many college students receive some form of financial aid to help pay for school. But these students must meet and maintain certain eligibility requirements, including maintaining satisfactory academic progress, or SAP. Each school has their own SAP requirements, but they largely revolve around maintaining a minimum GPA and keeping a minimum class completion pace.

  • Relationship problems.

    Friendships and romantic relationships can suffer. “College students addicted to gaming become irritable when they are not able to get their gaming fix,” Whatley says. “They become isolated and socially unavailable. Gamers’ relationships suffer due to addiction.” Issues with grades can also cause friction with parents. “Some student gaming addicts withdraw from college without their parents’ knowledge due to compulsive gaming,” Whatley says.

  • Lack of sleep.

    There are only 24 hours in a day. For someone with gaming addiction, that means something has to give, and adequate sleep is often the first thing that falls to the wayside. But it’s well documented that not getting enough sleep will negatively impact a student’s ability to learn. In fact, 72 percent of college students admit they do worse on a test or assignment due to lack of sleep.

  • Serious health issues.

    As if lack of sleep weren’t enough, there’s more to worry about. “Their diet becomes unhealthy as they spend hours in front of the computer eating take-out pizza and caffeinated drinks to heighten the stimulation from gaming,” Whatley says. “Weight gain has been reported by gaming addicts due to the sedentary lifestyle. Gamers who suffer with epilepsy may experience seizures due to the lighting triggers in video games.”

The addicts’ impairment is not as obvious as other addictions, like alcohol or drugs, and often slips by unnoticed until the damage becomes very obvious.
Dr. Lisa Whatley

Spotting the Difference: Knowing When Gaming Becomes an Addiction

The consequence of a video game addiction can be significant. However, it can be difficult to differentiate normal video game play versus pathological or compulsive play, as there isn’t a single factor that can definitely determine when the video game hobby becomes an addiction. However, there are many signs that, when existing together, can signify a problem with video games.

Normal Video Game Use

  • Video games do not interfere with normal sleep patterns.
  • The player can stop to eat a meal, use the bathroom, take a shower or complete other necessary, daily tasks.
  • The player readily and honestly admits how much time they spend playing video games.
  • The video game activities have no effect on academic or professional performance or responsibilities.
  • The player has time to spend with family and friends.
  • When not playing video games, the player can think about other things.
  • The player has no problem when engaging in other non-video game activities.
  • The player can fully control how much or how little they play video games.
  • The player does not require an increasing amount of time playing video games to enjoy the activity.
  • The player still takes time to partake in non-video game hobbies.
  • The player plays video games to further enjoy real life.
  • Once video games start to cause problems in the gamer’s life, they stop or reduce the amount they play.
  • The player feels strong emotion while in the game, but quickly moves on from it.
  • The player can easily accept an interruption to a video game.
  • The player will not spend money on video games if they cannot afford to.

Warning Signs of Addiction

  • Video games are the direct cause of sleep deprivation.
  • The player will skip meals, eat while playing, or forego other daily tasks so that they may continue playing video games or avoid interruption.
  • The player lies about how much time they devote to playing video games.
  • The player’s grades start to drop, classes are missed, or the individual’s employment is in jeopardy.
  • The player no longer has the time or the desire to meet with friends or family.
  • The player is constantly thinking about video games, even when not playing them.
  • The player experiences feelings of withdrawal when not playing a video game.
  • The player continues to play video games despite attempts to stop or reduce play.
  • The player must play new video games or spend more time playing existing video games to gain pleasure from them.
  • The player withdraws from other hobbies and leisure activities to play more video games.
  • The player uses video games as an escape from real life.
  • The player continues to play video games despite acknowledging the negative effect it has on their life.
  • The player feels extreme pleasure, guilt or anger when the video game session doesn’t go as planned or when the gamer realizes they spent more time playing than they should have.
  • The player gets very angry or annoyed when a video game session is interrupted.
  • The player will go into debt to support the desire to play video games.

Where to find help

It’s vitally important to get help before gaming turns into a serious problem. At the first sign of an issue, students can reach out to these on campus and off campus resources.

Mental Health/Counseling Center:

Most colleges and universities understand the propensity for college students to suffer from mental health problems and the effect it can have on their education. Some schools offer on-campus help readily available to all students, such as the Syracuse University Counseling Center, UCLE Counseling and Psychological Services and UF Counseling & Wellness Center. They will typically provide access to mental health services at no or low cost to students and can help students get the assistance they need to overcome gaming addiction.

Student Health Center:

Many schools, such as UNLV and Vanderbilt, have basic medical facilities and professionals to provide a first line level of primary care to their students. They can help spot any first-hand physical manifestations of a video game addiction and refer students to medical and psychological resources, both on campus and off, where they can receive additional care.

On-Line Gamers Anonymous:

This organization is based on the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 step program. Participants can join both online and offline groups to help seek recovery.

SAMHSA National Helpline:

Anyone can call 1-800-662-4357 (HELP) for access to a free and confidential information service to help themselves or others who may have a problem. Callers can receive information regarding where to get local treatment, support groups and order free publications.

TechAddiction:

This website offers a plethora of information and advice to help anyone suffering from an addiction that involves technology, including video games.

ULifeline:

ULifeline focuses on providing information, tools and resources for college students concerning emotional health. They can provide immediate help by text or phone; they also offer a self-evaluation that can help pinpoint problems.

Digital Detox: A Hard Reset on Your Video Game Habit

One way to get a fresh perspective of the negative effect a video game has on a student’s life is to stop playing for a set period of time, such as 30 days or more. With this time away from gaming, the individual will often realize just how much time they were spending on their video game habit.

Another advantage of a detox is the opportunity to choose a different leisure activity to replace video games. Perhaps it’s hanging out with friends, going to a concert or playing an intramural sport. Whatever the activity, make sure it’s fun! The primary purpose is to prove that someone can have fun, socialize, relax, relieve stress or get away from everyday life without having to rely on a video game.

After the detox is over, individuals can choose what they want to do next. They can cut out video games entirely, or simply restart their hobby, but in more moderation. The purpose of the detox isn’t to necessarily stop video game playing altogether, but rather to provide an opportunity for new perspectives and experiences that do not involve video games.

Healthy & Responsible Gaming Strategies in College

Like many other things in life, video games are best enjoyed in moderation. Students can help ensure they don’t go overboard with their video gaming habits with the following strategies.

The only way to effectively limit game play is to acknowledge too much time is spent gaming or that it’s interfering with life. Therefore, the most important first step for controlling a video game habit is to acknowledge there’s a problem.

For those really into gaming, something as simple as hearing a conversation about games or seeing a new video game commercial can be enough to trigger the desire to play. To avoid these triggers, choose to play only at a certain time or place. For instance, perhaps the console or gaming laptop is put away in a closet for every day of the week except Sunday night, which is the only time they can play.

This buddy can be someone to play video games with or someone to make sure video games are played within reasonable limits. It can be a significant other, roommate, classmate or friend who can check in on the gamer and make sure they’re only playing video games in a reasonable and harmless manner.

“Limit the time playing before ever sitting down to begin. The student should only play after collegiate responsibilities such as attending class and assignments are complete,” Whatley advises. By keeping the gaming to a reasonable amount of time (and the sticking to those limits), anyone can enjoy video games responsibly.

“If the student wakes up at night and can’t go back to sleep, they should not engage in gaming, as this is a stimulant for the brain which interrupts REM sleep,” Whatley points out. “Students should make a rule not to eat while gaming as this becomes an unconscious habit and contributes to being unhealthy and weight concerns.”

One way to place implicit limits on video games is to only play them once certain things are done. For example, only play video games when: it’s the weekend, all homework and chores are done and only after taking a shower. In addition, “students should be certain that their time gaming is much less than time interacting in person socially with other college students,” Whatley says.

If a student plays a video game only when a reasonable goal is reached, it will reduce the amount of time spent on the games. And if the goal is related to beneficial things like working out or completing homework, there’s added bonus of improving other aspects of the gamer’s life while keeping video gaming in check.

Another way to control time spent gaming is to restrict how much money can be spent on video games and related content. That new expansion pack, downloadable content or volume two in the video game series can make it much harder to stop playing.

For Parents: Supporting Your Gamer in College

The consequences of a video game addiction in college can be severe, but that doesn’t mean a student can’t succeed in college and enjoy video games at the same time. The following list of tips can help parents make sure their children make the most of the college experience.

  • Talk to your child.

    “Parents can be open with their students, and discuss the problems attached to compulsive gaming, and the seriousness of this addiction,” Whatley says. “Parents can remind gamers that these games are designed with the help of expert behaviorists, who go to extreme lengths to hook the gamers. Using a combination of psychology and technology they can hook the student, similar to drug and alcohol use.”

  • Consult with student housing officials.

    If you know your child will need help keeping the video game habit in check, see if the school can assign a roommate that isn’t into video games. You can also talk with your child’s RA about helping keep an eye out for excessive video game playing.

  • Prove there’s a problem.

    Sometimes a person won’t believe they have a problem until they are presented with cold, hard evidence. “There are apps now that can tell you exactly how much time during the day you have spent online, and this is helpful to bring awareness for the parents and students,” Whatley says.

  • Start a gaming detox.

    One month (or some other time period) before moving in, have your child go video game free. Show them how much time they’re spending on video games and that there are other ways for them to have fun.

  • Search for the root cause.

    “All addictions are used by the addict to fill a deep need like stress relief or being lonesome or depressed. These root issues can be addressed through therapy which eliminates the need for gaming and helps find alternate activities for the gaming addict,” Whatley says.

  • Consider a gap year.

    Having an extra year to mature and understand that video games shouldn’t take such a large role in the student’s life can lead to a better chance of your child being able to succeed in college and still play video games in a reasonable manner.

  • Check in with your child.

    Yes, one of the signs of a problem with video games is lying. But you can still do a decent job of monitoring your child’s video game activities by asking about it. The first step in helping a child keep the video game hobby in control is to determine if it has gotten out of control.

  • Give the financial burden to your child.

    By the time a child is off to college, they’re probably paying for most of their own video games. However, there are other ways parents can avoid providing financial support for the video game habit. For example, if you know your son or daughter spends $100 a month of their own money on video games, then cut back on financially supporting your child by that same amount. If you’re paying for your child’s rent or tuition, reduce that amount by $100 per month.

  • Encourage activities outside of video games.

    Encourage your child to do things that do not involve video games. Maybe your child is on the fence about signing up for an Ultimate Frisbee club. Encourage them to do so, as every minute they’re throwing a plastic disc, they’re not sitting in front of a screen. “Parents can help their college students remember to get out of the dorm and engage in person with others,” Whatley says. “The parent of a gamer can be present for their students to support them as students and be interested in their lives.”

  • Help with accountability.

    Depending on the type of video games your child plays, you can help them keep track of how much time they play. Special computer software can help keep track of how much time is spent playing video games. You can also ask them to keep a journal. Often someone has no idea how much they’re doing something until they write it down and read it later.

  • Talk to your child’s friends or professors.

    If video gaming is a problem, friends or professors might mention it, or at least allow you to read between the lines. If there isn’t a problem but you think there might be, you can ask them, especially professors, to be aware of a potential issue. It might make it easier for them to understand if your daughter or son is having a problem in a particular class.

  • Talk to your child—not just about gaming.

    If your child needs to vent, it is better that they do it to you than spend hours in front of a screen. “Gaming is often used to forget problems and numb out, so the parents can help by having open communication with their college students,” Whatley says.

What can you do if your child is addicted to video games?

When help is needed, step in. “Parents need to understand that when their student becomes addicted, the parent is interacting with their addiction, rather than their son or daughter. At this point, it is necessary to get professional help for the gamer,” Whatley says. This can take the form of an intervention, intensive therapy, removing all video games from the student’s access or engaging in 12-step and accountability programs, or perhaps all of the above.

“The parent should be patient during their gamer’s recovery, due to the fact that the gamer’s brain structure changes due to long term gaming, and it takes months of no gaming to return to its normal non-addicted state,” Whatley points out. “Helping the gamer find new and healthier habits is imperative. Most growth for addicts takes place in group therapy, so finding a 12-step group for your gamer is a must.”