video games and heroin

Video Games are Not Heroin….. what the science really tells us

In a New York Times article from back in 2016, we read the headlines “We now know that those iPads, smartphones and Xbox’s are a form of digital drug. Recent brain imaging research is showing that they affect the brain’s frontal cortex — which controls executive functioning, including impulse control— in exactly the same way that cocaine does.” 

The journalist goes on to state “That’s right—your kid’s brain on Minecraft looks like a brain on drugs.”  

More recently I heard an author recant the notion that giving your child an ipad is akin to them smoking nicotine. 

Why these headlines make me mad 

What annoys me about these headlines is the play on parents already pre existing fears about anything they don’t understand. And what happens when we parent from a place of fear? We widen the gap between ourselves and our kids. We become less relevant. We are no longer the safe ones they come to if they have a problem. They too become fearful of our decision making that is likely to be unfavourable and thus further alienate themselves and their world from ours. And ultimately, it does very little in the way of helping parents and their kids navigate technology, gaming and devices in a way that is relevant and helpful.

Telling parents you may as well give your kids a hit of heroin if you let them play video games is also downright irresponsible and nothing short of a quick way to sell a few books and get a click worthy headline. We need perspective, realistic strategies and a chance to tackle the issues, rather than run away from them, and shut everything down. 

Why it’s dangerous to compare video games to drugs

Parents are emotional beings. In fact we humans generally are,  but when we bear offspring, the emotional game can step up a level.  And when we are parenting in a world we are overwhelmed by, already feeling somewhat incompetent and under skilled in terms of our knowledge base…..then we are going to be quick to hang on to anything we can that will offer us help and hope. And we do so because big media outlets publish this stuff so it must be true. Because people have published books with these statements so it must be true. Like everything about this world however, we have to get a lot more critical about what we devour and ultimately what we act on. We have to do a little more scrambling to come up with the most relevant, helpful and factual information out there, in order to ensure our fears and anxieties are not further exacerbated, and we are left with no realistic strategies to deal with any issues perceived or apparent. 

What the science really says

Why do people come to these conclusions? Well, they start with comments such as, ‘Gaming changes the brain’. Yes it does. As does reading, writing and arithmatic. As does kicking a ball.  Any new experience changes the matter of the brain. That’s how our brains develop. We keep what we need and discard what we don’t. So yes, gaming like many activities, changes the brain. 

We also hear references to the pleasure and reward centres of the brain. How playing a game lights up those reward centres. Yes it does. As it does when we take heroin. As it does when we kiss someone we love. As is does when we see our football team win, or eat our favourite ice cream, or dance to our favourite song. Do we avoid anything that gives us pleasure in order to prevent these neural pathways from being impinged upon? The dopamine levels raised when playing a game is about double any unpleasurable activity. The dopamine levels raised when taking heroin is up to 10 times the amount released during any unpleasurable activity. These comments may also allude to a recent school shooter who also liked playing video games. Considering nearly every young teenage boys play video games this is hardly surprising.

I’m not saying that we don’t chase those little mini hits of dopamine and that the allure can vary greatly from one person to the next. I’m not saying that the creators of games are not well aware of what our brains like to experience and thus can make it more difficult for some….…..but let’s be careful how we present this information to parents. 

Is it all bad anyway?

In terms of the positive elements of gaming, the science is actually overwhelmingly positive. You can read more about the research here in Professor Peter Gray’s article sense and nonsense of video games. Recent research has made significant links to higher IQ’s of gamers, other cognitive benefits of problem solving, thinking outside the box, creativity and creative thinking referred to as flexibility. We are also seeing motivational benefits as one must persist at a task for longer to achieve the desired outcome. Increasingly we are seeing emotional benefits as players are able to regulate fear and anger during a game and of course there are the social benefits of being able to connect with mates whilst playing and make new connections as well. So the research we are beginning to see is actually far more positive for the majority of people playing video games. If you want to delve even deeper in to some of these findings you can find the research here and the work of our Australian organisation IGEA are also about to release their latest findings on gaming. 

But they made gaming disorder a thing?

Yes, the World Health Organisation did make gaming disorder a thing. And many will argue that this inclusion as a recognised disorder is not only premature, but confusing and very difficult to disseminate. There is significant opposition from the medical and scientific community and the worry that misdiagnoses will be detrimental to some. That is not to say of course that there are not people out there with significant obsessions and gaming behaviours that have gone well beyond healthy and sustainable. But there are usually other issues at play. There were usually warning signs that these behaviours were becoming uncontrollable,  and they are still a very small minority in terms of the total number of people playing video games. 

What is the alternative when we have curbed their free play?

We constantly hear the bemoaning by older generations that kids today don’t want to play outside and be active and engage in free play. We’ve also heard the stories of kids not going to school for 2 years or wetting themselves because they are ‘addicted’ to playing video games.  Let me remind you there were warning signs there. Of course we don’t want kids playing 24/7. We don’t even want them to be playing for hours and hours. We don’t really want them to be doing anything in life that is obsessive. 

But what are the alternatives? Many don’t let their kids play outside. They worry they’ll get kidnapped (or if we do allow it we ironically attach them to a tracking device). Our 24/7 media highlights all the bad things that could happen, that in days gone by, we never heard about in our 30 minute nightly news bulletin. So we spend their childhood hovering over them to make sure they are safe. Of course it is our role to protect them. But we also need to look at what they may well be missing out on, as we try fervently to control their world.

Kids still want to run and jump

Because kids still want to play. They still want to run and jump and chase and climb and ride and swim and throw and kick and wrestle. But we have curbed so much of that, either due to time restraints, fear of physical hurt, fear of not keeping up with the structured activities, or fear of the ‘what ifs’.

And kids still want to hang out with their mates. They still crave connection. They still need to argue and resolve problems and issues. They still need to work out social cues and adapt and compromise. But we are not letting them out to hang in the streets with the neighbourhood kids until it is dark and engage in all of those activities. And so what do they do? 

They pick up the next best thing that allows them to at least play, have fun and hang out with their mates. To let off steam, to be challenged, to think creatively, to think outside the square, to find new ways of doing things. To socialise and meet new people. And that thing they pick up is a game controller. Or an ipad. Or anything that is handy for them to have those needs met,  without having to go out into the big bad world.  

The gaming device or tablet then becomes their ‘go to’ way to spend their time and we throw our hands in the air and say “all they want to do is play video games”. 

We need to work harder to give them options.

They can do both. 

  • Give them lots of opportunities for so many ways to play. Yes, that may well mean having to get out there yourself at times. Build that culture of balanced play in your home. A way of life that means there are just lots of different activities that you do. 
  • Monitor their gaming and look for those warning signs that they are not coping or it is no longer healthy. 
  • Give them boundaries if they are struggling. Discuss with them why you need those boundaries and how you can work together to come up with something that gives them the balance they need. 
  • Play a game with them so they can see that you have an understanding, some knowledge and some perspective.  You don’t have to do it every day, but taking an interest in what they are playing usually means those boundaries become more readily accepted. 

Certainly continue to read about the dangers so you know what to look out for. Look for those signs in your child that they are being controlled rather than in control. Get help if you need it. But continue to learn yourself, so that you can more confidently parent from a place of knowledge and empowerment, and leave behind the fear, anxiety and overwhelm that does little to serve you or your kids well. 

To hear more on this topic you can head to Potential Pyschology Podcast and hear from Professor Peter Gray


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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Annie

    Truly loved this message! And it came at a time that myself and my 12 year old son are constantly logging heads. I say xbox 360 is fine and only during school holidays and he is now not happy with that (they have only had this one for a year). He wants a PS4 as there is a larger variety of games. I do find that when both my Boys (11&12) play on the xbox 360, they are more aggressive and disrespectful towards each other. Then they havent even played for 2 hours in a day. The types of games they play I do ensure is age appropriate as well.
    Thank you for widening my thinking about this topic. Truly loved it

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