CHILDREN addicted to video games are more likely to suffer depression, anxiety and social phobias as a result of their pathological gaming, and may need professional help to recover, a visiting American researcher says.
Once their gaming is back to normal levels, their psychological problems shift, and their mood and school work improves, says Douglas Gentile, a lead researcher on two studies of video game addiction.
Dr Gentile, an associate professor in psychology at Iowa State University, will be a guest speaker at the Corporate Takeover of Childhood conference in Melbourne next month.
His study of 1178 American children found nearly one in 10 gamers to be pathological players, and his study of 3034 Singapore youngsters found a similar level of addiction. The addiction was measured according to standards established for diagnosing gambling addiction.
The pathological gamers in Singapore played 31 hours a week and in the US 20 hours a week but ''there was no magic number'', Dr Gentile said.
Although 90 per cent of youngsters developed no serious problems with gaming, many spent much more time staring at screens than was recommended.
The measure of pathology was less about the hours youngsters played than the damage gaming was doing to their lives.
The study asked children a series of questions, including whether they ever lied about their gaming or stole or skipped school to play games; if they felt they could not stop, and if they got anxious and irritable when they tried to stop.
Parents had every reason to be concerned if gaming was damaging children's relationships with family and friends, and if their school work was suffering, Dr Gentile said.
''It's a serious problem for some children and they cannot get out of it on their own,'' he said. ''It's not just a phase. In the Singapore study, 84 per cent of those addicted at the start of the study were still addicted two years later and needed professional help to get out of it.''
He said there was no clear pattern to explain why some children were more vulnerable, but they tended to be more socially awkward, have less impulse control, and spend more than the average time playing games.
Interactive gaming, where youngsters played with their friends in the same room or with ''11 million friends online'' had increased the risks of problem gaming because it made it more attractive, Dr Gentile said.
It was not hard to understand how some children became addicted, because gaming gave them a sense of control, belonging and competency, answering three basic human needs, he said.
Although 90 per cent of youngsters developed no serious problems with gaming, many spent much more time staring at screens than was recommended by the American Academy of Paediatrics - six hours instead of the recommended two.
Dr Gentile, who met his wife playing an online game, said gaming could have positive effects: ''It's not like crack cocaine.''
However, further research he had done showed video games involving violence prompted children to think and behave more aggressively.
Parents were not powerless to set limits on the amount of screen time for their children, he said. Other strategies might be needed with teenagers, such as setting a weekly limit they could manage themselves.
''It's a matter of balance,'' he said. ''But one thing we know is that there's no such thing as too much reading.''