AMA: Video games are not an addiction

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Mesmerizing, pervasive and obnoxious, perhaps. But video games are not addictive, the American Medical Association said yesterday. Still, parents beware.

“While more study is needed on the addictive potential of video games, the AMA remains concerned about the behavioral, health and societal effects of video game and Internet overuse,” said president Dr. Ronald M. Davis during the group’s annual meeting.

“To the extent that a game is controlling someone’s behaviors and taking over their daily life, then you are talking about a compulsive use, whether you categorize it in a psychiatric manual or not,” Dr. Davis said. “We urge parents to closely monitor their children’s use of video games and the Internet.”

His simple statement, however, belies an in-house kerfuffle among the physicians. Earlier this week, the AMA’s Council on Science and Public Health presented a report outlining assorted social dysfunctions and “dependence-like behaviors” fostered by the games in up to 15 percent of players, ultimately recommending that overuse be classified as a “formal diagnostic disorder.”

To some, those were fighting words. Delegates argued whether “excessive gaming” deserves the same serious medical intervention commanded by drug or alcohol addiction. They also parsed the potential implications for insurance coverage and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Still, the influence of X-Box, Playstation and other video game systems takes up much youthful attention: Between 70 percent and 90 percent of American children play video games, Dr. Davis said.

The games have brought both condemnation and kudos from researchers. In recent years, video games have been linked with childhood obesity, an increase in aggressive or violent behavior and social isolation. Yet other studies have found the games improve eye-hand coordination, sharpen visual acuity and actually fulfill basic psychological needs. Stroke victims, autistic children and even surgeons have o benefited from game play.

The AMA plans to submit the controversial report to the American Psychiatric Association for review, possibly laying the groundwork for excessive gaming to be included in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” the defining reference in the medical community. The manual is scheduled to be revised in five years.

The AMA is also critical of the current ratings system for video games, which has not been changed since 1994.

“We would like to see a ratings system that better alerts parents to the content of the video game and recommended age of the player, so they can decide whether or not their child should be playing it,” Dr. Davis said. “Parents need to more closely monitor and restrict the types of video games their children are playing and buying.”

But mom and dad are already doing that, according to the Entertainment Software Association, a District-based trade group. According to their market research, 91 percent of parents monitor the content of their children’s games with 85 percent claiming that task belongs to parents — not the government, retailers or game manufacturers.

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