What this BYU study found about addiction to video games

Here’s something to remember about Brigham Young University professor Sarah Coyne before knowing anything else about her research on video-game addiction:

She’s not a video-game hater.

In fact, the family life professor has no problem with her own teenager responsibly enjoying video games, especially during the ongoing pandemic when people need some escape and fun.

“My 16-year-old son really likes video games,” she told the Church News. “He gets on Fortnite with his friends at night, and he laughs and talks and connects with them — and it makes him happy.”

Gaming, she added, “has been important for his emotions and social relationships when he can’t see people face-to-face.”

But after serving as the lead research author on a recent six-year study on video game addiction, she and her fellow researchers at the Church-owned school have concluded that for a “significant minority” of gamers, video-game addiction — a condition where gaming interferes with a person’s ability to function normally — is a troubling fact.

Coyne’s initial interest in the potential risks of video games was personal. Several years ago, one of her relatives “seemed to be controlled by video games and was having some pretty negative results,” she said.

Scholarship at the time suggested that video game addiction was real — but the research was in its infancy. The available studies only measured behavior over a short period of time. And many cast doubts about the long-term effects of any apparent “addictions.”

Coyne’s strength is longitudinal research — looking at variables over an extended period of time. So she and a small group of fellow researchers, both from BYU and other institutions, sought to collect and analyze long-term data from hundreds of game-playing adolescents who were on the cusp of young adulthood. The study would explore what predicts “somebody who is ‘high’ on a video-game addiction and then, perhaps, what are some of the outcomes.”

The methodology was straightforward. Researchers surveyed a group of adolescents, both young men and young women, about video-game addiction every year, once a year, for six years. A small percentage of participants were Latter-day Saints.

The self-report survey included several items that reflected “a clinical cutoff level” for video-game addiction. Participants also responded to queries on a range of other personal measures such as depression, anxiety, pro-social behavior, empathy, delinquency, shyness, financial and vocational outcomes, and parental monitoring.

According to a study done by a BYU researcher, about 90% of the participants used video games in ways that were safe and free from negative long-term consequences.
According to a study done by a BYU researcher, about 90% of the participants used video games in ways that were safe and free from negative long-term consequences. Credit: Shutterstock

The study’s long-term elements offered Coyne and her fellow researchers telling data on if, say, depression or anxiety lead to a problem with video games — or if a person’s “pathological relationship” with video games influence a negative outcome over time.

“It allowed us to look at directions of associations,” she said.

The research, which was published in “Developmental Psychology,”  revealed about 90% of the participants used video games in ways that were safe and free from negative long-term consequences. 

“That’s relatively good news,” said Coyne. “The vast majority of adolescents can play video games without becoming addicted or developing other problems.”

But the remaining 10% reported crossing into addictive territory. Their behaviors included unhealthy preoccupations with video games and experiencing withdrawal symptoms when they were unable to play. 

Some gamers perpetually chased “highs” through new content, so money was an issue. Others reported “significant conflict” with family and friends over video games. Consequences of apparent video game addiction included high levels of depression, anxiety, shyness and higher levels of “problematic cell phone use.”

Of the 10% of the gamers who were classified with an addiction, the most common predictors were being male and participants with low levels of “pro-social behavior” such as empathy. 

Coyne said she and her fellow researchers discovered similarities between video-game addiction and other forms of risky compulsions, such as gambling addiction. And at “very extreme levels,” video-game addictions could be associated with negative outcomes over time.

But the research, she noted, also challenged stereotypes that a person battling an addiction was “a loser guy living in his mom’s basement” and playing video games all day.

“The 10% of the sample were just as likely to have gone to college or to have a job,” said Coyne. “They were just as likely to say that they felt satisfied about their financial situation.”

For many video-game addicts, compulsive gaming offers an escape from maybe a difficult family situation or bullying at school.

Hope for those struggling with addiction

Anecdotally, Coyne knows of full-time missionaries who have struggled with intense withdrawal symptoms because they were not permitted to play video games during their missionary labors. Some opted to leave the mission field and return home. 

“It’s a general fear among Latter-day Saint parents,” said Coyne.

Church leaders have taught the importance of video-game balance. In his October 2007 general conference talk “Good, Better, Best,” President Dallin H. Oaks, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, cautioned that “technology toys like video games and the Internet are already winning away the time of our children and youth.”

So how can parents, spouses and local Church youth leaders help a young man or young woman struggling with an apparent video-game addiction?

Two young men play a video game. A BYU study found that 10% of participating gamers were classified with an addiction. The most common predictors were being male and participants with low levels of “pro-social behavior” such as empathy.
Two young men play a video game. A BYU study found that 10% of participating gamers were classified with an addiction. The most common predictors were being male and participants with low levels of “pro-social behavior” such as empathy. Credit: Shutterstock

Coyne suggests that families begin by attempting to set limits on play time. “And something that I really like to tell parents is to try to find out the motivation for why a child is turning to video games so much — and then try to find that motivation in other areas of life.”

For example, some young people are drawn to video games because they are motivated by winning.

“So what are some things in the real world,” asked Coyne, “where they can realize that same level of achievement in, say, areas like sports?”

Cutting out video games “cold turkey” without replacing the games with some similar form of motivation often ends poorly, added Coyne.

And if the problem continues, there are a variety of different professional therapeutic solutions.

“Specifically, the Church, in its 12-Step Program, now covers video-game addiction.” said Coyne.

Standard treatment such as cognitive behavioral therapies are often utilized.

The good news: a person with a video-game addiction can manage their behavior —  and even learn to play video games as a hobby.

“We see plenty of cases of people who have been able to turn things around and get on a different trajectory,” said Coyne.