Love Child, a 2014 Sundance Film Festival documentary, explores the death of a 3-month-old girl in South Korea. When detectives found the infant, she weighed 5.5 pounds, less than her birth weight. It turns out that her parents, instead of caring for their newborn daughter, were nurturing a “virtual” child — spending six to 12 hours a day online with that make-believe child. Similar horrifying incidents of video-game addiction can be found online. While the American Psychological Association reports video games can be used to boost children’s learning and actually prevent or treat mental health problems, such high-profile cases illustrate the dark side of gaming. Studies have shown that two hours of play each day can lead to depression and even change the structure of a person’s brain. Here are just some of the symptoms linked to video games.
5. Obscure Maladies Can Strike
Consider the most common work-related injuries to muscles, tendons and nerves caused by repetitive motion, fixed or constrained positions and a lack of rest. So it’s not a stretch to consider individuals exercising the same body parts to continually press buttons or controls would suffer related overuse conditions. In the medical community, some of these ailments have even been named after the device used; for example, “PlayStation palmar hidradenitis” is described as painful sores on the palms of the hands caused by regularly playing on this type of console.
A new form of “tennis elbow,” first documented by the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007, is associated with extended play on the Wii. Also known as Wiitis (or acute tendonitis), the journal describes a 20-something man experiencing intense pain in his right shoulder after playing Wii tennis for hours. And before we had Wiitis, there was Nintendinitis. Literature about this ailment dates to at least 1990 when the NEJM documented severe pain around the tendon of the right thumb in a 30-something woman, after five hours of uninterrupted play.
4. Video Games Can Trigger Epileptic Seizures
The curious seizure warnings you may have wondered about on video-game packaging represent companies’ efforts at legal protection from a very real condition known as Photosensitive Epilepsy. It’s estimated about 3 to 5 percent of those with epilepsy have this form of abnormal brain activity. Characterized by loss of consciousness, disordered breathing, twitching and jerking, and loss of muscle control, PSE is caused by rapid flashes or alternating patterns of different colors, particularly shades of blue and red, broadcast on TV or video games. Generally, it’s estimated lights that flash five to 30 times per second are most likely to trigger seizures.
PSE is more likely to affect younger gamers, those in their early 20s or younger. The Epilepsy Foundation reports PSE risk factors also include sitting closer than 2 feet from the screen, gaming in a dark room with a bright screen, and playing while tired and without breaks.
3. Video Games Can Create Behavioral, Attention Problems in Children
A large body of research connects the dots between gaming and children’s behavior and cognition. For instance, research published in the Annals of General Psychiatry in 2006 linked gaming (one-plus hour daily) to ADHD symptoms and inattention, which could lead to lower scholastic performance among high school students. That University of Vermont study also cited a number of other studies that connected gaming to short-term aggressiveness, hostility and other anti-social conditions.
While these studies frequently underscore the importance of healthy parental relationships and other lifestyle and environmental factors, other studies have explored the physiological effects of gaming on the brain. Apparently, your “brain on games” looks an awful lot like a gambling addict’s brain. Belgian researchers found the brains of 14-year-olds with excessive game playing (12 hours a week on average), were enlarged in the area characterized as the “main hub for the reward system.” Specifically, those who spent more time playing video games had more gray matter in the area rich in dopamine, that “feel-good” chemical. This might explain why children continue to play games even when they lose, just as habitual gamblers continue betting whether they win or lose. Interestingly, addictive substances target the dopamine system, the very structure that appears to be altered among high-frequency gamers.
2. Extreme Gaming Can Cause Heart Palpitations, Other Issues
Norwegian researchers found excessive video gaming is associated with a number of health problems, including headaches, digestive disorders, rapid or irregular heartbeat and high blood pressure. These conditions were reported at higher rates among the “addiction group,” versus those classified as in the “non-addiction group.”
Video games and sleeplessness have also been linked in other studies. Players may forget to eat (or sleep), and may be under constant excitement, stress and brain overstimulation that can produce some of these health problems. Migraines may be brought on by lengthy periods of intense concentration and eye strain. Light and noise generated by the games make symptoms worse.
1. Video Games Strongly Linked to Depression
It seems many studies exploring the effect of video games on players discover a link to depression. Results of a study published in the February 2011 issue of Pediatrics suggest a domino effect. Kids deemed “pathological” gamers (generally two-plus hours a day) were less likely to fit in with their peers. Accordingly, they were more likely to be depressed, anxious and suffer from social phobias. It’s unclear how gaming affects depression; however, researchers were certain gaming comes first, depression second, and that video games can’t be ignored when treating depression.
University of Texas researchers specifically isolated the frequent play of violent video games and depression — a departure from previous studies that only looked to for link between all video games and aggression. The study published in 2014 found those who played these games for at least two hours a day had “significantly more depressive symptoms” than those who didn’t, including lack of interest in formerly pleasurable activities, concentration difficulties, low energy and self-confidence, and suicidal thinking. The risk of depression was reportedly greater among males, particularly among African-American boys.