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Can excessive gaming lead to problem gambling?

 

As parents everywhere endure a love/hate relationship with screen time, researchers have identified links between excessive gaming and problematic gambling.  

During the lockdown and home schooling days of 2020 and 2021, many of us found reprieve with iPads, iPhones, gaming consoles; anything to help us get that bit of work done or bust the monotony of being isolated at home. And, in ordinary times, screen time is a saviour for many of us trying to balance work/life or simply for enduring a long road trip with the kids!

However, you might have noticed screen time actually becomes less effective the more a child is given. You may even see some behavioural changes or concentration issues after a few too many hours spent buried in a game.

If you’ve joked with your partner or friends that your child seems addicted to their device, it’s quite possible that they are. This is because games are designed to be immersive, and keep the player engaged.

For children with no family history of addiction and a stable upbringing, odds are that addictive tendencies towards games mightn’t progress further and impact their adult lives. But, for those with a family/genetic history of addiction, we know that there is an increased chance of them developing addictive behaviours. The environment we grow up in turns genes on or off. This is known as epigenetics. Rudimentary studies show some subgroups of gamers may be susceptible to developing gambling problems later on (Molde et al, 2019). While it's important to note that problematic gamers do not always develop a gambling addiction, there are links that we need to be aware of.

The similarities between gaming disorder and pathological gambling

We already have extensive evidence from neuroscience studies that gambling behaviour impacts the reward-system area of the brain of a gambling addict in the same way that a substance affects people with an alcohol or drug addiction by releasing the production of neurotransmitters triggering pleasurable feelings.

Researchers have now undertaken Functional Neuroimaging Studies in people who have Gaming Disorder and the results are worrying, showing similar correlates between the neurobiological activity in the brains of people with gambling disorder. Fauth-Buhler & Mann (2015) found these correlates to be connected with the impact on the reward-based learning centre of the brain, as well as heightened reactivity to gaming cues, impulsivity of choice behaviours and a decrease in the sensitivity to losses.

How game designers take inspiration from gambling  

There are many games out there now for young children and teenagers that mimic gambling, with gambling-like elements that may make gambling feel normal for children when they eventually become exposed to it. Researchers at the University of Plymouth and Wolverhampton support this, showing that some games are psychologically and structurally like gambling. For example, 'loot boxes' are a feature of some online games. These are opened using real money as incentives (depending on the game) for extra rewards, such as weapons or cosmetics. The research stated that players are sent reminders that they can access ‘limited time’ items in the loot box, potentially triggering fear of missing out on the item. 

The neuroscience behind process addictions like gambling

Addiction research shows us that the mesolimbic dopamine pathway (the reward reinforcement centre in the brain) deals with reward. Pleasurable feelings are released when the reward centre has been activated. This can reinforce motivation and learning – which are also parts of the mesolimbic pathway. In essence, people tend to be motivated to do more of what gives them pleasure.

Why gaming needs to be carefully supervised

Common to all addictions, both process and substance, is the psychological distress caused by the consequences of the addiction. This is what often brings people to treatment in their adult years. Addictions impact people’s motivation and mood and can include depression, feelings of remorse, guilt or shame. Left untreated these feelings can get worse over time as the addiction progresses. The person may use more of the substance or process to avoid these feelings. 

For parents, avoiding games completely seems (and likely is going to be) impossible. Even for the most stringent families, much of the homework provided by schools takes the form of apps designed to teach reading, maths or sounds in an engaging game format. So what can we do to minimise the risk of developing problematic gaming or gambling behaviours?

Signs to look out for to mitigate excessive gaming / problematic gambling

  • Excessive use of video games or other online/digital experiences
  • Hours going by without eating, sleeping or connecting with loved ones.
  • Feelings of dissatisfaction, anger, frustration or lack of productivity after gaming
  • Lying about, or hiding how much time is spent gaming
  • Insomnia, tiredness or disrupted sleeping patterns following gaming
  • Conflict with family or friends about excessive gaming

How to have a conversation about gambling with your children

Gambling was once accessible only to adults, confined to the dark walls and flashing lights of ‘pokie rooms’ in pubs and clubs. But with technology, has come increased accessibility, and a child may not understand the site they’re visiting or game they’re playing may be potentially dangerous to them.

The Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation says that having a conversation with your kids about gambling, is now just as important as talking about alcohol use or safe sex.

While it can be hard to explain the perils of gambling to a young child who may not understand the value of money, you can liken it to items of value they understand (such as a favourite toy) to explain it in the simplest of terms.

For older children and teens, you can begin to explain how certain games have been designed to make them play more and spend more. You can outline some of the reasons why gambling is problematic both online and in the physical world too.

By using parental controls on your child’s devices, you will encourage conversations about which games are being downloaded, and you give yourself the chance to assess particular games, before your child starts playing them.

Finally, creating an environment that encourages safe expression of thoughts and emotions, and teaches healthy emotional regulation skills when the inevitable stressors of life hit us, as we all experienced during the pandemic- can contribute to mitigating escalation of problematic behaviours.

If you’re concerned about gaming or gambling, schedule a free, confidential, professional phone assessment, by calling our team seven days a week on 1800 063 332.

 

References

Fauth-Bühler, M., & Mann, K. (2015). Neurobiological correlates of Internet gaming disorder: Similarities to pathological gambling. Addictive Behaviors, 64, 349–356. doi:10.1016/j. addbeh.2015.11.004

Molde, H; Holmoy, B; Garvik Merkesdal; Torsheim, T; Mentzoni, R; Hanns, D; Sagoe, D & Pallesen, S. (2019). Are Video Games a Gateway to Gambling? A Longitudinal Study Based on a Representative Norwegian Sample. Journal of Gambling Studies, 35(2):545-557. doi: 10.1007/s10899-018-9781-z.

https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/news/research-shows-links-between-loot-boxes-and- problem-gaming 

https://www.esafety.gov.au/key-issues/staying-safe/gaming 

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