Fears addictive games as damaging for kids' brains as drugs and alcohol
Computer violence linked to real-life aggression – psychologist
Video games can have a similar effect on children’s brains as drug abuse or alcoholism, a new study has found.
Games such as ‘Fortnite’, which is now hugely popular with Irish children as young as six, evoke the same “reward” system in the brain as with addictions.
This has been shown in MRI scans undertaken during a series of studies by California State University. They show the “reward” system in the brains of young heavy users of social media and video games display the same changes in function and structure as those of alcoholics or drug addicts.
The studies found the impulsive part of the brain, known as the amygdala-striatal system, was not only more sensitive but also smaller in excessive users so that it processed the stimuli of video games and social media faster.
Catherine Hallissey, a child and educational psychologist based in Cork, has warned that playing violent video games is associated with real-life aggressive behaviour and less pro-social behaviour.
“In addition, there is the potential of any highly interesting and rewarding activity, such as video gaming, becoming addictive, leading to family conflict,” she said.
For decades there have been concerns about a possible link between violence in video games and in real life. However, some studies have concluded there is no connection.
Research released by the University of York this year found no evidence for “priming” video games players for aggressive behaviour, in a study of 3,000.
However, the most recent study raises questions about video games and addiction.
According to the studies led by Professor Ofir Turel, of California State University, the impact on young brains is marked.
He said: “Say someone sees a video game or cellphone, this reward system in the brain lights up [in scans].
“It’s a very strong activation compared to other people.
“It is associated with structural change in that this brain area is smaller in people who are excessive users.
“The smaller system can process associations much faster. But like a car, you need to put more gas into it to generate more power.”
There was, however, an up-side in that the studies showed the part of brain responsible for “self-control” over impulses was not affected in the same way for excessive social media users, as other addictions such as drink or drugs.
“It means most people can control their social media behaviour but they just don’t have the motivation to do so,” said Prof Turel.
This was less evident for heavy video gamers, where self-control appeared to be impeded. There was also the risk excessive usage could be changing children’s brain reward systems in the long term, making them more susceptible to other addictions later in life.
“The question is if you sensitise their reward system at a young age with video games and social media, does it increase their risk to become addicted to drugs or drink later in life?” said Professor Turel.
His initial research suggested there is an association between heavy video game users aged 13 to 15 and an increased likelihood of misusing at least one of 15 substances from cocaine to amphetamines.
A third study by his research team found internet addiction also disrupted the connections between the left and right sides of young people’s brains. “When the tracks that connect these parts of the brain are not efficient, people are more prone to develop addictions,” he said.
One Irish mother appeared on ITV’s ‘This Morning’ show in March this year to explain how ‘Fortnite’ had negatively affected her son’s behaviour.
“I had to tell him you’re not acting the way you normally act,” Suzanne Sellman said on the show.
“The game is so full of energy and adrenaline that when you pull them off it, they are screaming at the television, they’re hiding, they’re calling each other, they are living in it with their friends.”