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New tech 'addictions' are mostly just old moral panic

From Engadget - February 9, 2018

But video games are not the only aspect of internet society that has people concerned. A 2016 study by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that helps teens and their parents navigate modern media, found that nearly half of the teens surveyed described themselves as "addicted" to their phones. In August of the same year, British media watchdog Ofcom's survey found that 60 percent of people in the UK felt themselves similarly addicted. Even Selfitis -- the compulsive need to take and post pictures of yourself to social media -- is now considered a genuine mental health disorder.

But is it really? Not everybody in the medical community is on board with such an assessment. Some researchers have argued that this is simply another example of "moral panic": a remarkably common phenomenon in our culture, arising repeatedly in our history seemingly whenever a new generation asserts its values (which are often at odds with the previous generation's) on society.

The IDC's characterization of "gaming disorder" includes a variety of symptoms such as impaired control over gameplay, prioritizing gaming over other interests and continuing the behavior even after negative consequences. These criteria are similar to what the American Psychiatric Association (APA) proposed in 2013 for inclusion in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Dubbed Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD) by the APA, its nine characterization criteria include the inability to self-regulate game playing at the expense of other interests.

In fact, a group of more than two dozen doctors and researchers sent an open letter to the WHO in 2016, arguing that formalizing the disorder lacked scientific merit and could cause real harm to patients.

"Our main concerns are the low quality of the research base, the fact that the current operationalization leans too heavily on substance use and gambling criteria, and the lack of consensus on symptomatology and assessment of problematic gaming," the group wrote. "The act of formalizing this disorder, even as a proposal, has negative medical, scientific, public-health, societal, and human rights fallout that should be considered."

Dr. Michelle Colder Carras, a postdoctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, takes issue with characterizing it as an addiction at all. "Addiction is not a good term to be using with video games, because I would say unlike substance problems there is no substance that we are ingesting that directly affects your brain chemistry," Colder Carras told Engadget. "It makes more sense to talk about problematic video gaming.

"Playing video games is an enormous experience that has to be taken in context," she continued. "Because if we think of video games as a potential threat of addiction, then it's going to be hard to figure out exactly who has problems and who needs help."

For a study published in the February edition of the journal Computers in Human Behavior, Colder Carras and her team recruited a pair of focus groups at a recent video game convention. These groups were asked to define what they felt constituted symptoms of gaming "addiction," then discuss and rank their criteria in order of importance. A team then compared this ranked list against the proposed DSM-5 criteria for IGD. The study found that the strongest agreement between participants' rankings and IGD characterizations were functional impairment, continued use despite problems, unsuccessful attempts to stop and the loss of interest in other hobbies. The other five DSM-5 criteria did not overlap as strongly.

This follows a previous study that Colder Carras and her team published last year, again in Computers in Human Behavior. After grouping study participants by their gameplay, social network and IM habits as well as symptoms of "problematic" gaming, Colder Carras discovered that gamers (especially heavy-usage male players) who had better online social interactions exhibited fewer symptoms of problematic play as well as a lower prevalence of loneliness and social anxiety compared to players who interacted less effectively.

In male gamers with close friends both online and off, Colder Carras found that the association with depression disappeared completely. "People are quick to attribute causal influences," Antonius J. van Rooij, another author of the paper, writes. "These games are not necessarily causing the problems; it might just as well be the other way around. People are not functioning, they suffer from social anxiety, they are lonely, and they flee into the games because it's an excellent coping mechanism."

The kids are alright, according to Chris Ferguson, a psychology professor at Florida's Stetson University. The issue may instead lie within society's existing power structure: the so-called moral panic. This is "a situation in which society or elements of society decide to find a scapegoat to explain a pressing societal problem which may be real or imagined," he explained to Engadget.

For example, "you still have people claiming that Adam Lanza, who was the 2012 Sandy Hook shooter, was an avid Call of Duty or violent video game player," Ferguson explained. "Odds are that he probably played occasionally." (Not surprising given that the franchise has sold more than 260 million units since 2003.) However, the official investigation report points out that the only game he played regularly was Dance Dance Revolution.

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