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What is computer addiction?


With personal computers becoming commonplace in the 1990s came an increase in the numbers of children who appeared to be obsessive computer users, primarily focused on video games. Children and teenagers moved from nonelectronic fantasy games to video arcades to home computers, dramatically increasing the numbers of children and teens playing video games.

These games are purchased or are resident programs in desktop computers, laptop computers, and dedicated video gaming units, or consoles. While some video games are available over the Internet, many are sold in packaged software for use with a general purpose computer or a dedicated computer unit; other computers are designed and advertised as gaming computers.

Computer addiction and particularly video game addiction continue to expand as electronic media use increases and as more computers come in smaller and more portable sizes, such as tablets and smartphones. A 2013 survey by Nielsen found electronic media use by American preteens and teenagers has surged to almost eleven hours per day. The results surprised researchers because they thought that 8.5 hours of electronic media use in 2004 represented the maximum time left in a student’s average day.

Students have been able to push their electronic life several hours higher by multitasking with electronic devices. Home computer ownership reached 84 percent in 2014. Ownership of laptop computers rose from 12 to 61 percent from 2004 to 2012. Cell phones (or smartphones) are now handheld computers and hold many resident games. In 2004, only 18 percent of students owned a cell phone; in 2013 that number reached 78 percent, of which 47 percent were smartphones. Furthermore, the main use of cell phones for youths is not to make calls. Tasks that tend to take more of their time on the phone include texting (text messaging), watching other media, and video gaming.

Also problematic is video gaming in the workplace. Depending on the availability of computers, work time and productivity lost to video games and other nonwork-related computer use can exceed 10 percent.

Risk Factors

Researcher Douglas A. Gentile published a survey of eight- to eighteen-year-olds in the United States and found that 12 percent of boys were addicted to video games. Only 3 percent of girls were addicted to video game. Also, insofar as computers require a level of affluence, computer addiction is a problem mainly for developed and advanced-developing countries.

A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that while daily use of all electronic media did not vary much by gender (eleven hours and twelve minutes for boys versus ten hours and seventeen minutes for girls), girls lost interest in computer video games and played less as teenagers, averaging only three minutes per day. Some researchers suggest that computer addiction is a major cause of the worldwide “boy problem,” in which boys are dropping out of academics and girls predominating in the higher levels of education. The decline in boys in academics parallels the rise of personal computer technology.


Researcher Margaret A. Shotton was the first to extensively document computer addiction and dependency, although primarily through anecdotal cases and with references to early video arcade games. Ricardo A. Tejeiro Salguero proposed a problem video-game-playing (PVP) scale in 2002. Because problematic video gaming is a behavioral addiction (in contrast with a chemical addiction), video gaming was more closely associated with compulsive gambling. Gentile developed a similar scale of eleven self-reported negative factors. Having a minimum of six symptoms of the eleven on the scale was set as the threshold for addiction.

The correlation between computer addiction as determined by Gentile’s scale and poorer grades in school, for example, could have been an indication of comorbidity; that is, a child might spend more time on the computer and get poor grades because of a separate but common factor.

Proof that pathological video game addiction causes a decline in academics was established by Robert Weis and Brittany C. Cerankosky. After establishing a group of boys’ academic baseline achievement, they gave one-half of the boys access to computer video games and saw their academics decline. The control group continued on with solid schoolwork.

An extensive Kaiser Family Foundation survey found an inverse relationship between electronic media use and good grades, with 51 percent of heavy users getting good grades versus 66 percent of light users getting good grades. Heavy users were less likely to get along with their parents, were less happy at school, were more often bored, got into trouble at twice the average rate, and were often sad or unhappy compared with light users.

Screening and Diagnosis

Salguero and Gentile both proposed a multiple-factor scale to designate pathological computer video gaming. Extensive time spent playing computer games is not a sufficient indicator of addiction. However, when combined with risk factors of low social competence and higher impulsivity, there is a greater chance of pathological gaming that can result in anxiety, depression, social phobia, and poor school performance. There may be a correlation of computer addiction and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder that may be related to a child’s difficulty relating normally in social settings, but these are a minority of cases.

Treatment and Therapy

At the public policy level, Western countries appear little concerned with computer addiction beyond lost workplace productivity. The main societal concerns are in Asia, where there is much more focus on the pool of intellectual talent and more concern with children’s academic success. Several Asian nations have attempted to place limits on the amount of time that teenagers can spend on computers per day; most indications are that these limits are easily circumvented by tech-savvy students.

Modeled on summer camps for overweight children are China’s experimental summer camps for weaning students from computer addiction. Programs beginning in the United States attempt to use counseling to treat, for example, the psychological problems and antisocial feelings that may coexist with computer addiction. Other programs use outdoor wilderness experiences. Limited evidence exists of the success of these types of programs.


Because computers and the evolving tablets, e-readers, cell phones, and other media that are primarily small computers are presumed to be technical advances, little likelihood exists of establishing regulatory measures or controls on the availability of computers and video games. In 2011, the US Supreme Court rejected regulation of violent computer video games in the United States. This leaves the control of children’s access in the hands of teachers and parents. Surveys show many parents have a low level of concern about or have little desire to regulate their children’s computer activities.


Chiu, Shao-I, Jie-Zhi Lee, and Der-Hsiang Huang. “Video Game Addiction in Children and Teenagers in Taiwan.” Cyberpsychology and Behavior 7 (2004): 571–81. Print.

Gentile, Douglas A. “Pathological Video-Game Use among Youths Ages 8 to 18: A National Study.” Psychological Science 20 (2009): 594–602. Print.

Gentile, Douglas A., et al. “Pathological Video-Game Use among Youths: A Two-Year Longitudinal Study.” Pediatrics 127 (2011): 319–29. Print.

Madden, Mary, et al. "Teens and Technology 2013." Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, 13 Mar. 2013. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.

Nielsen. "An Era of Growth: The Cross-Platform Report Q4 2013." Nielsen. Nielsen, 5 Mar. 2014. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.

Rideout, Victoria J., Ulla G. Foehr, and Donald F. Roberts. “‘Generation M2’: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds—A Kaiser Family Foundation Study.” Jan. 2010. Web. 16 Apr. 2012.

Salguero, Ricardo A. Tejeiro, and Rosa M. Bersabe Moran. “Measuring Problem Video Game Playing in Adolescents.” Addiction 97 (2002): 1601–6. Print.

Shotton, Margaret A. Computer Addiction? A Study of Computer Dependency. New York: Taylor, 1989. Print.

Shotton, Margaret A. “The Costs and Benefits of ‘Computer Addiction.’” Behaviour and Information Technology 10 (1991): 219–30. Print.

Weis, Robert, and Brittany C. Cerankosky. “Effects of Video-Game Ownership on Young Boys’ Academic and Behavioral Functioning: A Randomized, Controlled Study.” Psychological Science 21 (2010): 463–70. Print.

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