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Screenagers in love: Adolescent screen time, content, and context

In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advocated the ‘2×2’ screen time guidelines to parents that their children should be restricted to no more than 2 hours of screen time a day and that children under 2 years of age should not be exposed to any screen time at all. Not only is this unworkable in today’s multi-media world but the guidelines are not based on scientific evidence. Thankfully, the AAP have revised their guidelines in the light of how today’s children actually engage with screen-based interactive technologies. For me, the issue is not about the amount of screen time but is about the content and the context of screen use. I have three ‘screenagers’ (i.e., children often referred to as ‘digital natives’ who have never known a world without the internet, mobile phones and interactive television) who all – like me – spend a disproportionate amount of their everyday lives on front of a screen for both work/educational and leisure purposes. Engaging in a lot of screen-based activities is not inherently negative – it’s simply a case of doing things differently than we did 20 years ago.

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One online activity that has received a lot of criticism in the media is the playing of online videogames. However there is now a wealth of research which shows that video games can be put to educational and therapeutic uses, as well as many studies which reveal how playing video games can improve reaction times and hand-eye co-ordination. Their interactivity can stimulate learning, allowing individuals to experience novelty, curiosity and challenge that stimulates learning. Although I have published many studies concerning online gaming addiction, there is little empirical evidence that moderate gaming has any negative effects whatsoever. In fact, many excessive players experience detrimental effects.

Over the past 15 years I have spent time researching the excessive playing of online videogames like Everquest and World of Warcraft (WoW). Online gaming involves multiple reinforcements in that different features might be differently rewarding to different people. In video games more generally, the rewards might be intrinsic (e.g. improving your highest score, beating your friend’s high score, getting your name on the “hall of fame”, mastering the game) or extrinsic (e.g. peer admiration).

In online gaming, there is no end to the game and there is the potential for gamers to play endlessly. This can be immensely rewarding and psychologically engrossing. For a small minority of people, this may lead to addiction where online gaming compromises everything else in their lives. However, playing excessively doesn’t necessarily make someone an addict. A few years ago in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, I published two case study accounts of two males who claimed that they were gaming for up to 80 hours a week. They were behaviourally identical in terms of their game playing, but very different in terms of their psychological motivation to play.

The first case was an unemployed single 21-year old male. His favourite online game was World of Warcraft and that since leaving university he had spent an average of 10 to 14 hours a day playing WoW. He claimed that WoW had a positive influence in his life and that most of his social life was online and that it increased his self-esteem. He also argued that he had no other commitments and that he had the time and the flexibility to play WoW for long stretches. Gaming provided a daily routine when there was little else going on. There were no negative detrimental effects in his life. When he got a job and a girlfriend, his playing all but stopped.

The second case was 38-year old male, a financial accountant, married and had two children. He told me that over the previous 18 months, his online playing of Everquest had gone from about 3-4 hours of playing every evening to playing up to 14 hours a day. He claimed that his relationship was breaking down, that he was spending little time with his children, and that he constantly rang in sick to work so that he could spend the day playing online games. He had tried to quit playing on a number of occasions but could not go more than a few days before he experienced “an irresistible urge” to play again – even when his wife threatened to leave him.

Giving up online gaming was worse than giving up smoking and that he was “extremely moody, anxious, depressed and irritable” if he was unable to play online. Things got even worse. He was fired from his job for being unreliable and unproductive (although his employers were totally unaware of his gaming behaviour). As a result of losing his job, his wife also left him. This led to him “playing all day, every day”. It was a vicious circle in that his excessive online gaming was causing all his problems yet the only way he felt he could alleviate his mood state and forget about all of life’s stresses was to play online games even more.

I argued that only the second man appeared to be genuinely addicted to online gaming but that the first man wasn’t. I based this on the context and consequences of his excessive play. Online gaming addiction should be characterized by the extent to which excessive gaming impacts negatively on other areas of the gamers’ lives rather than the amount of time spent playing. For me, an activity cannot be described as an addiction if there are few (or no) negative consequences in the player’s life even if the gamer is playing up to 14 hours a day. The difference between a healthy enthusiasm and an addiction is that healthy enthusiasms add to life, addictions take away from it.

Every week I receive emails from parents claiming that their sons are addicted to playing online games and that their daughters are addicted to social media. When I ask them why they think this is the case, they almost all reply “because they spend most of their leisure time in front of a screen”. This is simply a case of parents pathologising their children’s behaviour because they think what they are doing is “a waste of time”. I always ask parents the same three things in relation to their child’s screen use. Does it affect their schoolwork? Does it affect their physical education? Does it affect their peer development and interaction? Usually parents say that none of these things are affected so if that is the case, there is little to worry about when it comes to screen time. Parents also have to bear in mind that this is how today’s children live their lives. Parents need to realise that excessive screen time doesn’t always have negative consequences and that the content and context of their child’s screen use is more important than the amount of screen time.

(Please note: This article is an extended version of an article that was originally published by the London School of Economics’ Media Policy Project)

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Online video gaming: What should educational psychologists know? Educational Psychology in Practice, 26(1), 35-40.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The role of context in online gaming excess and addiction: Some case study evidence. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 119-125.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Adolescent gambling via social networking sites: A brief overview. Education and Health, 31, 84-87.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013) Social networking addiction: Emerging themes and issues. Journal of Addiction Research and Therapy, 4: e118. doi: 10.4172/2155-6105.1000e118.

Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Child and adolescent social gaming: What are the issues of concern? Education and Health, 32, 9-12.

Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Gaming addiction in adolescence (revisited). Education and Health, 32, 125-129.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J. & King, D.L. (2012). Video game addiction: Past, present and future. Current Psychiatry Reviews, 8, 308-318.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). Social networking addiction: An overview of preliminary findings. In K. Rosenberg & L. Feder (Eds.), Behavioral Addictions: Criteria, Evidence and Treatment (pp.119-141). New York: Elsevier.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Online social networking and addiction: A literature review of empirical research. International Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 8, 3528-3552.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Online gaming addiction in adolescence: A literature review of empirical research. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1, 3-22.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Internet gaming addiction: A systematic review. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 278-296.

Lopez-Fernandez, O., Honrubia-Serrano, M.L., Baguley, T. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Pathological video game playing in Spanish and British adolescents: Towards the Internet Gaming Disorder symptomatology. Computers in Human Behavior, 41, 304–312.

Pápay, O., Urbán, R., Griffiths, M.D., Nagygyörgy, K., Farkas, J. Kökönyei, G., Felvinczi, K., Oláh, A., Elekes, Z., Demetrovics, Z. (2013). Psychometric properties of the Problematic Online Gaming Questionnaire Short-Form (POGQ-SF) and prevalence of problematic online gaming in a national sample of adolescents. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 16, 340-348.

Game over-view: A brief overview of our recent papers on gaming addiction

Following my recent blogs where I outlined some of the papers that my colleagues and I have published on mindfulness and Internet addiction, here is a round-up of recent papers that my colleagues and I have published on gaming addiction.

Pontes, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Measuring DSM-5 Internet Gaming Disorder: Development and validation of a short psychometric scale. Computers in Human Behavior, 45, 137-143.

  • Despite the large growth on gaming behaviour research, little has been done to overcome the problem stemming from the heterogeneity of gaming addiction nomenclature and the use of non-standardised measurement tools. Following the recent inclusion of Internet Gaming Disorder [IGD] as a condition worthy of future studies in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM-5], researchers have now an opportunity to reach consensus and unification in the field. The aim of this study was to develop a new nine-item short-form scale to assess Internet Gaming Disorder (IGDS-SF9) and to further explore its psychometric properties. A sample of 1060 gamers (85.1% males, mean age 27 years) recruited via online gaming forums participated. Exploratory factor analysis [EFA], confirmatory factor analysis [CFA], analyses of the criterion-related and concurrent validity, reliability, standard error of measurement [SEM], population cross-validity, and floor and ceiling effects were performed to assess the instrument’s psychometric properties. The results from the EFA revealed a single-factor structure for IGD that was also confirmed by the CFA. The nine items of the IGDS-SF9 are valid, reliable, and proved to be highly suitable for measuring IGD. It is envisaged that the IGDS-SF9 will help facilitate unified research in the field.

Benrazavi, S.R., Teimouri, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Utility of parental mediation model on youth’s problematic online gaming. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 13, 712-727.

  • The Parental Mediation Model (PMM) was initially designed to regulate children’s attitudes towards the traditional media. In the present era, because of prevalent online media there is a need for similar regulative measures. Spending long hours on social media and playing online games increase the risks of exposure to the negative outcomes of online gaming. This paper initially applied the PMM developed by European Kids Online to (i) test the reliability and validity of this model and (ii) identify the effectiveness of this model in controlling problematic online gaming (POG). The data were collected from 592 participants comprising 296 parents and 296 students of four foreign universities, aged 16 to 22 years in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). The study found that the modified model of the five-factor PMM (Technical mediation, Monitoring mediation, Restrictive mediation, Active Mediation of Internet Safety, and Active mediation of Internet Use) functions as a predictor for mitigating POG. The findings suggest the existence of a positive relation between ‘monitoring’ and ‘restrictive’ mediation strategies and exposure to POG while Active Mediation of Internet Safety and Active mediation of Internet use were insignificant predictors. Results showed a higher utility of ‘technical’ strategies by the parents led to less POG. The findings of this study do not support the literature suggesting active mediation is more effective for reducing youth’s risky behaviour. Instead, parents need to apply more technical mediations with their children and adolescents’ Internet use to minimize the negative effects of online gaming.

Hussain, Z., Williams, G. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). An exploratory study of the association between online gaming addiction and enjoyment motivations for playing massively multiplayer online role-playing games. Computers in Human Behavior, 50, 221–230.

  • Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) are a popular form of entertainment used by millions of gamers worldwide. Potential problems relating to MMORPG play have emerged, particularly in relation to being addicted to playing in such virtual environments. In the present study, factors relating to online gaming addiction and motivations for playing in MMORPGs were examined to establish whether they were associated with addiction. A sample comprised 1167 gamers who were surveyed about their gaming motivations. Latent Class Analysis revealed seven classes of motivations for playing MMORPGs, which comprised: (1) novelty; (2) highly social and discovery-orientated; (3) aggressive, anti-social and non-curious; (4) highly social, competitive; (5) low intensity enjoyment; (6) discovery-orientated; and (7) social classes. Five classes of gaming addiction-related experiences were extracted including: (1) high risk of addiction, (2) time-affected, (3) intermediate risk of addiction, (4) emotional control, and (5) low risk of addiction classes. Gender was a significant predictor of intermediate risk of addiction and emotional control class membership. Membership of the high risk of addiction class was significantly predicted by belonging to a highly social and competitive class, a novelty class, or an aggressive, anti-social, and non-curious class. Implications of these findings for assessment and treatment of MMORPG addiction are discussed.

Király, O., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics Z. (2015). Internet gaming disorder and the DSM-5: Conceptualization, debates, and controversiesCurrent Addiction Reports, 2, 254–262.

  • Scientific interest in behavioral addictions (such as Internet gaming disorder [IGD]) has risen considerably over the last two decades. Moreover, the inclusion of IGD in Section 3 of DSM-5 will most likely stimulate such research even more. Although the inclusion of IGD appears to have been well received by most of the researchers and clinicians in the field, there are several controversies and concerns surrounding its inclusion. The present paper aims to discuss the most important of these issues: (i) the possible effects of accepting IGD as an addiction; (ii) the most important critiques regarding certain IGD criteria (i.e., preoccupation, tolerance, withdrawal, deception, and escape); and (iii) the controversies surrounding the name and content of IGD. In addition to these controversies, the paper also provides a brief overview of the recent findings in the assessment and prevalence of IGD, the etiology of the disorder, and the most important treatment methods.

Király, O., Urbán, R., Griffiths, M.D., Ágoston, C., Nagygyörgy, K., Kökönyei, G. & Demetrovics, Z. (2015). Psychiatric symptoms and problematic online gaming: The mediating effect of gaming motivation. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 17(4) :e88.

  • Background: The rapid expansion of online video gaming as a leisure time activity has led to the appearance of problematic online gaming (POG). According to the literature, POG is associated with different psychiatric symptoms (eg, depression, anxiety) and with specific gaming motives (ie, escape, achievement). Based on studies of alcohol use that suggest a mediator role of drinking motives between distal influences (e.g., trauma symptoms) and drinking problems, this study examined the assumption that there is an indirect link between psychiatric distress and POG via the mediation of gaming motives. Furthermore, it was also assumed that there was a moderator effect of gender and game type preference based on the important role gender plays in POG and the structural differences between different game types. Objective: This study had two aims. The first aim was to test the mediating role of online gaming motives between psychiatric symptoms and problematic use of online games. The second aim was to test the moderator effect of gender and game type preference in this mediation model. Methods: An online survey was conducted on a sample of online gamers (N=3186; age: mean 21.1, SD 5.9 years; male: 2859/3186, 89.74%). The Brief Symptom Inventory (BSI), the Motives for Online Gaming Questionnaire (MOGQ), and the Problematic Online Gaming Questionnaire (POGQ) were administered to assess general psychiatric distress, online gaming motives, and problematic online game use, respectively. Structural regression analyses within structural equation modeling were used to test the proposed mediation models and multigroup analyses were used to test gender and game type differences to determine possible moderating effects. Results: The mediation models fitted the data adequately. The Global Severity Index (GSI) of the BSI indicated that the level of psychiatric distress had a significant positive direct effect (standardized effect=.35, P<.001) and a significant indirect (mediating) effect on POG (standardized effect=.194, P<.001) via 2 gaming motives: escape (standardized effect=.139, P<.001) and competition (standardized effect=.046, P<.001). The comparison of the 2 main gamer types showed no significant differences in the model. However, when comparing male and female players it was found that women had (1) slightly higher escape scores (on a 5-point Likert scale: mean 2.28, SD 1.14) than men (mean 1.87, SD 0.97) and (2) a stronger association between the escape motive and problematic online gaming (standardized effect size=.64, P<.001) than men (standardized effect size=.20, P=.001). Conclusions: The results suggest that psychiatric distress is both directly and indirectly (via escape and competition motives) negatively associated with POG. Therefore, the exploration of psychiatric symptoms and gaming motives of POG can be helpful in the preparation of prevention and treatment programs.

Fuster, H., Carbonell, X., Pontes, H.M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Spanish validation of the Internet Gaming Disorder-20 (IGD-20) Test. Computers in Human Behavior, 56, 215-224.

  • In recent years, problematic and addictive gaming has been a phenomenon of growing concern worldwide. In light of the increasing awareness about this issue, the latest (fifth) edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) included Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD) as an area in need of more empirical research. The Internet Gaming Disorder Test (IGD-20 Test) was developed as a valid and reliable tool to assess IGD. The aim of the present study was to validate the Spanish version of the IGD-20 Test, and analyze the different profiles found among a sample of 1074 Spanish-speaking gamers. A confirmatory factor analysis showed the validity of the Spanish version of the IGD-20 Test and its six factor structure (i.e., salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict and relapse). The latent profile analysis (LPA) showed five different gamer classes. The ‘disordered gamers’ class comprised 2.6% of the participants. Based on this class, sensitivity and specificity analyses showed an adequate empirical cut-off point of 75 (out of 100). It is concluded that the Spanish version of the IGD-20 Test is valid and reliable and can be used in research into IGD among Spanish speaking populations.

Griffiths, M.D., Van Rooij, A., Kardefelt-Winther, D., Starcevic, V., Király, O…Demetrovics, Z. (2016). Working towards an international consensus on criteria for assessing Internet Gaming Disorder: A critical commentary on Petry et al (2014). Addiction, 111, 167-175.

  • This commentary paper critically discusses the recent debate paper by Petry et al. (2014) that argued there was now an international consensus for assessing Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD). Our collective opinions vary considerably regarding many different aspects of online gaming. However, we contend that the paper by Petry and colleagues does not provide a true and representative international community of researchers in this area. This paper critically discusses and provides commentary on (i) the representativeness of the international group that wrote the ‘consensus’ paper, and (ii) each of the IGD criteria. The paper also includes a brief discussion on initiatives that could be taken to move the field towards consensus. It is hoped that this paper will foster debate in the IGD field and lead to improved theory, better methodologically designed studies, and more robust empirical evidence as regards problematic gaming and its psychosocial consequences and impact.

Kim, N.R., Hwang, S.S-H., Choi, J-S., Kim, D-J., Demetrovics, Z., Király, O., Nagygyörgy, K., Griffiths, M.D., Hyun, S.Y., Youn, H.C. & Sam-Wook Choi, S-W. (2016). Characteristics and psychiatric symptoms of Internet Gaming Disorder among adults using self-reported DSM-5 criteria. Psychiatry Investigation, 13(1), 58-66.

  • Objective: The Section III of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) proposed nine diagnostic criteria and five cut-point criteria for Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD). We aimed to examine the efficacy of such criteria. Methods: Adults (n=3041, men: 1824, women: 1217) who engaged in internet gaming within last 6 months completed a self-report online survey using the suggested wordings of the criteria in DSM-5. Major characteristics, gaming behavior, and psychiatric symptoms of IGD were analyzed using ANOVA, chi-square, and correlation analyses. Results: The sociodemographic variables were not statistically significant between the healthy controls and the risk group. Among the participants, 419 (13.8%) were identified and labeled as the IGD risk group. The IGD risk group scored significantly higher on all motivation subscales (p<0.001). The IGD risk group showed significantly higher scores than healthy controls in all nine psychiatric symptom dimensions, i.e., somatization, obsession-compulsion, interpersonal sensitivity, depression, anxiety, hostility, phobic anxiety, paranoid ideation, and psychoticism (p<0.001). Conclusion: The IGD risk group showed differential psychopathological manifestations according to DSM-5 IGD diagnostic criteria. Further studies are needed to evaluate the reliability and validity of the specific criteria, especially for developing screening instruments.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Beranuy, M., Carbonell, X., & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). A qualitative analysis of online gaming addicts in treatment. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 11, 149-161.

Billieux, J., Deleuze, J., Griffiths, M.D., & Kuss, D.J. (2015). Internet addiction: The case of massively multiplayer online role playing games. In N. El-Guebaly, M. Galanter, & G. Carra (Eds.), The Textbook of Addiction Treatment: International Perspectives (pp.1516-1525). New York: Springer.

Griffiths, M.D., King, D.L. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). DSM-5 Internet Gaming Disorder needs a unified approach to assessment. Neuropsychiatry, 4(1), 1-4.

Griffiths, M.D. & Pontes, H.M. (2014). Internet addiction disorder and internet gaming disorder are not the same. Journal of Addiction Research and Therapy, 5: e124. doi:10.4172/2155-6105.1000e124.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H., Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Trajectories of problem video gaming among adult regular gamers: An 18-month longitudinal study. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 16, 72-76.

King, D.L., Haagsma, M.C., Delfabbro, P.H., Gradisar, M.S., Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Toward a consensus definition of pathological video-gaming: A systematic review of psychometric assessment tools. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 331-342.

Király, O., Griffiths, M.D., Urbán, R., Farkas, J., Kökönyei, G. Elekes, Z., Domokos Tamás, D. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). Problematic internet use and problematic online gaming are not the same: Findings from a large nationally representative adolescent sample. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 17, 749-754.

Lopez-Fernandez, O., Honrubia-Serrano, M.L., Baguley, T. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Pathological video game playing in Spanish and British adolescents: Towards the Internet Gaming Disorder symptomatology. Computers in Human Behavior, 41, 304–312.

Pontes, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). The assessment of internet gaming disorder in clinical research. Clinical Research and Regulatory Affairs, 31(2-4), 35-48.

Pontes, H., Király, O. Demetrovics, Z. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). The conceptualisation and measurement of DSM-5 Internet Gaming Disorder: The development of the IGD-20 Test. PLoS ONE, 9(10): e110137. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0110137.

Spekman, M.L.C., Konijn, E.A, Roelofsma, P.H.M.P. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Gaming addiction, definition, and measurement: A large-scale empirical study, Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 2150-2155.

No time for the crime: Excessive adolescent video game playing, social networking and crime reduction

On Sunday February 9, 1964, The Beatles made their debut on US television. Their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show drew an estimated audience of 73 million people. One of the most quoted consequences associated with this particular show was that between 8pm and 9pm when the show was aired, a number of news reports claimed that there was no reported incidence of juvenile crime across America during the time of the broadcast.  The editor of Newsweek, B.F. Henry, went as far as to claim that “there wasn’t so much as a hubcap stolen” during the hour that The Beatles were on the show.

This apocryphal tale, at the very least, shows the apparent compelling logic in the argument that when an activity is so engrossing it has the capacity to stop people engaging in other types of activity such as crime. Inspired by a speculative blog post on the topic, my friend and research colleague Dr. Mike Sutton failed to disconfirm what Dr. Sutton and I have called the Crime Substitution Hypothesis. We recently published a small paper in the journal Education and Health that examined the extent to which popular youth activity (namely video gaming and social networking) may be having an effect on youth offending and victimization.

Young people’s use of technology (the so called ‘screenagers’ and ‘digital natives’) has increased greatly over the last two decades and a significant proportion of daily time is spent in front of various screen interfaces most notably videogames, mobile phones (e.g., SMS) and the internet (e.g., social networking sites like Bebo, Facebook). These ‘digital natives’ have never known a world without the internet, mobile phones and interactive television, and are therefore tech-savvy, have no techno-phobia, and very trusting of these new technologies.

One of the most empirically researched areas is in the area of adolescent video gaming. Negative consequences of gaming have included addiction, increased aggression, and a variety of medical consequences, such as repetitive strain injuries, obesity, and photosensitive epilepsy. There is certainly evidence that when taken to excess, videogame playing can in some cases be addictive, especially online videogame playing where the game never pauses or ends, and has the potential to be a 24/7 activity. However, there are many reported benefits that adolescents can get from playing videogames. These can be educational, social and/or therapeutic.

Another positive benefit of playing video games along with activities like social networking may be the capacity to reduce youth crime. The reason why videogames may have implications for crime reduction is their use as ‘distractors’ (such as in the role of pain management). The reasoning is that ‘distractor tasks’ consume some degree of the attentional capacity that would otherwise be devoted to pain perception. I have noted in a number of my academic papers that the main reasons that videogames make good distractors are because they:

  • Are likely to engage much of a person’s individual active attention because of the cognitive and motor activity required.
  • Allow the possibility to achieve sustained achievement because of the level of difficulty (i.e. challenge) of most games during extended play.
  • Appear to appeal most to adolescents

For instance, one study reported the case of an eight-year-old boy with neurodermatitis being given a handheld videogame to prevent him from picking at his face. Where previous treatments had failed, the use of the game kept his hands occupied and within two weeks the affected area had healed. A number of studies have demonstrated that videogames can provide cognitive distraction for children undergoing chemotherapy. All these studies have reported that distracted child patients report less nausea after treatment (when compared with control groups), and that playing videogames reduced the amount of painkillers the children needed during treatment. The very reasons why video games may be of benefit therapeutically may also be applied to video games in a crime reduction context (i.e., the playing of video games is so cognitively distracting that that there is little time to do or think about anything else).

Consequently, there is a developing school of thought arguing that peoples’ participation (especially excessive use) in video gaming and social networking may be contributory factors that may partly explain the fall in crime rates in recent years. For instance, the economist Larry Katz was quoted in a 2010 issue of The Economist suggesting that the playing of video games may be playing a role in crime reduction. Katz’ reasoning is simple – keeping people busy keeps them out of trouble. There appears to be some statistical support for such a hypothesis as the decrease in US crime rates appears to show an inverse correlational relationship with increased sales of video game consoles and video games. Clearly this correlational evidence should be treated with caution as it says nothing about causation. However, it does provide a hypothesis that could be the subject of future empirical testing.

Could the rise in video game playing and social networking be a major cause of what criminologists claim is an unfathomable drop in crime, and if not, then why not? Routine Activity Theory predicts that if a substantial numbers of young people are not on the streets either as victims or offenders then overall high volume ‘crime opportunities’ would diminish, resulting in an overall drop in high volume crime rates. We have no idea yet whether what we might call the ‘crime substitution hypothesis’ is plausible. Therefore, in our recent paper, Dr. Sutton and I set out some ideas that support it as something possibly worthy of further exploration.

As highlighted above, research suggests some young people are spending many hours playing video games or social networking. Research also suggests that video games can be engrossing, addictive and in some cases compulsive. Additionally, research has failed to establish that violent media is either a necessary or sufficient condition for causing crime. Therefore, taking a Routine Activity Approach, it would seem that an increase in video gaming might feasibly lead to a rise in the illicit market for stolen computers and games consoles. However, there might be fewer thieves to supply it if:

  • Fewer potential offenders are getting addicted to opiates and other drugs, and/or misusing alcohol out of boredom because they have escaped boredom in the real world by entering the more exciting world of cyberspace to play and interact with others.
  • Potential offenders and victims are gaming excessively and/or compulsively checking Facebook and/or other social networking sites.
  • The game players and other ‘netizens’ are playing at home so (a) fewer potential offenders on the streets and fewer potential victims, and (b) houses are occupied for longer and so less susceptible to burglary.
  • Immersion and gaming prowess and reputation may be sufficient substitutes for the same things in the offline (real) world
  • The Internet allows more people to work from home so teleworking may reduce the pool of “available” victims on the street and also ensure fewer homes are empty during the day.

The evidence provided for the ‘crime substitution hypothesis’ in our paper was anecdotal and/or correlational in nature but we would argue that this would provide a fruitful avenue for further research. Such research into ‘crime substitution’ and gaming/social networking might involve: (i) measuring time spent gaming and social networking by groups that empirical research predicts are at greater risk of becoming offenders, (ii) conducting ethnographic studies with young people to gauge whether, and if so to what extent, gaming and social networking are used as a substitute for risky activities in the offline (real) world, and do this in relation to both potential offending and victimization, (iii) examining issues of offline and online peer status and how this may impact on consequent behaviour (including criminal activity), and (iv) further examining the correlation between console and game sales – and any data on playing time and type of games – with the general crime trend over the past 20 years.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Cole, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Social interactions in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing gamers. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 575-583.

De Freitas, S. & Griffiths, M.D. (2008). The convergence of gaming practices with other media forms: what potential for learning? A review of the literature. Learning, Media and Technology, 33, 11-20.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Video games and health. British Medical Journal, 331, 122-123.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005b). The therapeutic value of videogames. In Goldstein J. & Raessens J. (eds.) Handbook of Computer Game Studies (pp. 161-171). Boston: MIT Press.

Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Internet and video-game addiction. In C. Essau (Ed.), Adolescent Addiction: Epidemiology, Assessment and Treatment (pp.231-267).  San Diego: Elselvier.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Trends in technological advance: Implications for sedentary behaviour and obesity in screenagers. Education and Health, 28, 35-38.

Griffiths, M.D. & Kuss, D. (2011). Adolescent social networking: Should parents and teachers be worried? Education and Health, 29, 23-25.

Griffiths, M.D. & Sutton, M. (2013). Proposing the Crime Substitution Hypothesis: Exploring the possible causal relationship between excessive adolescent video game playing, social networking and crime reduction. Education and Health, 31, 17-21.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Online social networking and addiction: A literature review of empirical research. International Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 8, 3528-3552.

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