See Kevin interviewed by Teen TV News: Videogame Addiction interview
BBC News came out with a story the other day that detailed the many useful aspects of the computer game, Minecraft, from the computer-programming mindset the game seems to foster, to building cooperative social skills. While the game certainly has a great deal of addictive potential, I nevertheless concur with the BBC journalist: Minecraft has the capacity to impart powerful skills and lessons.
Among the young people with ADHD and Asperger’s who come to my Study Groups, the game enjoys extraordinary appeal. Yes, when several boys are taking a “game break,” they play Minecraft together and something about that rather rudimentary virtual world encourages cooperation, as well as a constant flow of interaction. I have even had boys develop an interest in minerals and gem stones as a result of playing the game.
Typically, a Minecraft adept is male, 9-15 years old, of at least above-average intelligence, and often socially awkward. I have had boys who, like the BBC article details, have significantly improved their social skills through the game. I have also seen many boys become addicted, to the point that removing—or threatening removal—the game has resulted in extreme emotional disturbance. As I wrote in Cyber Junkie, yes, video games can provide numerous benefits. They can augment visual-spatial acuity, help relieve stress, and allow for interactions that solve real-world problems. According to, Scientific American, online Interactive games are also revolutionizing the world of scientific experiment and information gathering:
Instead of relying on the number-crunching power of a single supercomputer or network, crowdsourced games like FoldIt translate vast and complex data sets into simple online interfaces that anyone can learn to operate. The crowdsourced astronomy game Galaxy Zoo also depends on an army of “citizen scientists” for classification of stars hundreds of light years away; while Google built its image search technology on an image-labeling game. In fact, every time you “verify your humanity” on a web form by typing out nonsensical reCAPTCHA text, you’re actually helping Google transcribe books from the world’s libraries into a digital format.
The FoldIt game referenced above was famously employed to unravel the riddle of a protein molecule involved in retroviruses, like HIV. This particular protein’s structure had bedeviled scientists for decades, but the online gaming community, using FoldiT, solved the problem in just a few weeks. Minecraft is a cousin of this type of application, and so gives us a window into the wonderful screen-driven future that is already opening up. HOWEVER, let us not forget that some people have serious struggles with self-regulating their screen time. Before we go encouraging our children to while away their days with Minecraft, let’s remember that too much screen time poses serious consequences. Many studies have shown that high amounts of screen time, more than 2 hours a day, in young people strongly correlate with diminishing grades in school, fewer social contacts, and a propensity for negative emotional states. Obviously, this data does not apply to school-related screen interactions. Excessive dependence on the screen for stimulation and interaction IS A PROBLEM in and of itself, but usually points to deeper issues that are either undiagnosed or not being addressed.
Connor had been diagnosed with ADHD at age 12, and started participating in my Study Groups. Neither medications nor my groups seemed to offer much benefit; The young man with an IQ in the gifted range progressively withdrew from family and friends as well. The source of the withdrawal was a mystery to the family and the numerous professionals whose advice the parents had sought. During the summer between 7th and 8th grade, Connor discovered Minecraft, a game that offered him such satisfaction that his screen time increased to disturbing levels—8, 9, even 10 hours a day! Parental attempts to curtail Connor’s use regularly resulted in what his mother called, “meltdowns.” On one occasion, he punched a hole through the wall, while on another he attempted to hit his father. This latter incident prompted inpatient treatment, during which the psychologist discovered that Connor had been severely bullied, but had told no one. With therapy and a support group for children who have been bullied, Connor was able to talk about his experiences, get out his feelings, and move on with his life. His excessive game play was the first sign that something was wrong, perhaps even an unconscious cry for help.
I have had video game addicts go on to be diagnosed with ADHD, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety disorder, and numerous other mental health issues. When these underlying problems are addressed—and successfully treated— the Internet/gaming addiction almost always resolves. I see no inherent problems with video games. But we have to be extraordinarily careful when our loved one becomes dependent on them. Here are some signs to watch out for:
1. Emotional disturbances when the particular technology is removed from that person.
2. Disruptions in sleep often are the first signs that something is wrong (gamers and problem smart phone users often “use” into the wee hours).
3. The person has turned away from family and friends, and activities that he or she once found enjoyable.
4. Engaging in the screen behavior in ever-increasing amounts.
5. Unable to cut back on the behavior, in spite of a stated desire to do just that.
If you have a computer-oriented loved one, Minecraft is a great game to get him or her involved in. You also need to insist on a balanced life: exercise, face-to-face friend contact, and good performance in school. As Jake, a member of one of my cyber recovery groups said: “Yes, I’m a geek. But the world needs people like me who are great with computers. I just have to make sure that my life doesn’t get completely consumed by the screen.”