To Put Down the Controller

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I began playing video games when I was in elementary school. It’s fun to imagine those early game experiences now: a little fifth grader with pudgy hands and fingers experienced in pressing piano keys but unable to properly click QWER without fumbling and hitting the number keys. Nonetheless, I picked up on the game mechanisms over time, eventually winning most of my games and establishing myself as a fairly good player. Throughout elementary and middle school, I dedicated hundreds of hours to playing, which is still evident by the way my hands instantly go to rest on WASD keys whenever I am given a keyboard. Games fulfilled a competitive streak and quick temper that I always had. It wasn’t hard to fall in love with them.

But when my mother found out about my video game habit, she deemed it an addiction and made me delete my games off my PC. In hindsight, it was most likely out of love; she was worried that I would not be as focused on my future as I should. With the sudden game deletion, I developed into what my therapist once referred to as “withdrawal,” the unpleasant physical reaction that accompanies the process of ceasing to take an addictive substance. Above all, my addiction was a ridge between my parents and me as I failed to see why they disliked a simple online game so much and they failed to recognize why it was so difficult for me to stop playing. The latter has not changed: they still don’t approve of video games. Now that I am older, I can see why.

Video game addiction is common and easy to fall prone to. We are a generation that is addicted to our screens, and spending nine to 12 hours a day on our phones or computers is normalized. For many older adults, the difficulty to comprehend this addiction is the result of a generational difference between those who grew up when technology was still being developed and those who grew up in a world surrounded by it.

Video game addiction works in the same way alcohol or drug addiction. As Victoria Dunckley, M.D., put it, playing an excessive amount of video games can lead to a continuous state of hyperarousal in the brain, a result of repeatedly large releases of dopamine from excitement and feelings of achievement and a consistently triggered fight-or-flight response from overwhelming intake of stimulation and/or violence in a game. This hyperarousal, though varying from person to person, can lead to attention, creativity, compassion, and interest deficits, difficulty controlling emotions, and sometimes chronic stress. Like any addictive substance, video games are continuous sources of dopamine, and they become increasingly addictive as people play, creating an ongoing cycle of addiction.

Nonetheless, it is likely that gaming addictions will not be fixed with just the knowledge that abundant screen time can trigger the brain. After all, video games and problematic Internet use (PIU) are connected to parental attachment anxiety and alexithymia, a personality trait characterized by the subclinical inability to identify and describe emotions one experiences. Generally, adolescents with insecure attachments to parents are more prone to Internet addiction, including gaming. These underlying psychological factors are often discredited and unrecognized in criticisms of Internet addiction. This lack of consideration creates a situation where one party is unable to understand why it is so hard to “just let go” of the Internet while the other is unable to understand why there’s a need to separate with a coping mechanism.

There is no direct solution to Internet addiction; after all, there is no specific road to recovery for any sort of addiction. In my case, it took a year of disagreements with my parents and testing many outlets to try and ease the withdrawal. Therapy, alternative and healthier coping mechanisms, and limiting overall screen time helped me decrease my 10 hours of daily screen time. In many situations, people do not have access to the same sort of help I was able to get; therapy is expensive, and not many people have the time or the energy to find new solutions in life. Therefore, the easiest solution is to ease into a cap on screen usage. Whether it be through slowly spending fewer hours on the computer screen a day or finding alternatives to using the Internet, Internet usage can become far less dangerous.

Like most things in life, moderation is key. My friends have recently been obsessed with gaming in their own ways. One of them has invested in a brand new PC, while another has begged me to download her recent obsession, Valorant, and play with her. I plan to. Games like the ones my friends suggest are far from dangerous. They can be exciting, innovative, and creative. But a lingering sense of hesitation from my childhood remains because, even when addiction is evident, the help that’s received in regard to PIU is useless. Generally, video game addiction is still regarded as just excessive screen usage, something that can only be stopped with an entire change in mindset. We need to treat Internet addiction the same way we treat any addiction—without considering it just another fad of a new generation.