Is spending long hours on one activity always an addiction?
Many children spend long hours playing computer games. Six to ten hours per day is not uncommon. if you’re a parent, you may be worried that computer gaming is an addiction. But is that really the case? After all, people spend long hours doing a variety of activities.
For example, a well-known study* helped demonstrate how at least 10,000 hours of practice is needed to excel at anything. It was suggested that this could be applied to any skill. Even a child genius like Mozart took ten years to write anything that was recognised as truly great
Children today use computers and phones from a very early age. Computer gamers can start very young. Here is a typical day of one boy, aged only five:
- 5:45am: wake up and play for an hour
- 7:00am: go to school
- 12.00 noon: home for lunch: 15 minutes for eating; 45 minutes of playing
- After school: two hours of playing before dinner
- Dinner: 20 minutes; two hours of playing after dinner
- Homework and bed.
Would you be happy if your five-year-old (or for that matter, your ten or fifteen-year-old) did this routinely, playing for up to six hours a day? Probably not. Yet the above schedule was actually followed, not by a computer gamer as you might have imagined, but by one of the world’s best, most successful concert pianists, Lang Lang, now aged 36. His ‘playing’ was in fact on the piano. So, does that make him an addict? A music addict perhaps, or just a plain old workaholic? He appears very well adjusted these days and has nothing bad to say about the long hours spent at his occupation. Indeed, he sees it all as highly beneficial and is quoted as saying:
“If I had my time over again I’d… not reduce my practice time,” before admitting without a trace of irony,, that “music helped me survive my childhood”.
Lang Lang may have been (and presumably still is), in the grip of an obsession but he is not an addict because there are apparently no negative consequences of the behaviour that he repeats, over and over again – playing beautiful music.
So, could something similar happen in the case of young people who spend long hours in front of a screen playing global computer games. Could any of them say “computer gaming helped me survive my childhood” or words to that effect? Could they perhaps be not addicted, just obsessed?
Here are some interesting statistics on the hours children spend gaming weekly in the United Kingdom (UK) from 2013 to 2017, by age group (in hours)
To find out, I began by interviewing Luca.
Luca is a slim and cheerful 15-year-old, who goes to school in a West country town. When I first met him four years ago, he was overweight, moody at times and often seemed withdrawn and a bit isolated. At that time he was obsessively playing Minecraft, a well-known multiplayer global game. Many of his schoolmates were doing so too and some are still playing. But Luca has stopped. He didn’t like what he was becoming, through gaming, so he just stopped. He agreed to be interviewed and here are some of the questions and his answers:
How old were you when you started gaming and when you stopped? (I realise that you may still play a bit)
Well I started playing video games a little as a child on my dad’s computer, but I properly started playing my own games when I was 12 and I discovered multiplayer Minecraft. I played that for about 1.5 years and towards the end I got addicted to the point where it took over my life. I was lucky to get out the addiction because I understood what it did to me, unlike most gamers in denial. So, I changed videogame. And this made my gaming experience better as I found new friends and experienced a new side of gaming and strategic thinking. I stopped playing a lot when I turned 15 (around October 2017)
I think you said that you found gaming useful because it gave you technical insights and new friends. Any other reasons?
I found that Minecraft was an incredible mind-opener as I had to think of how it was coded, how the game worked and how I could use that to my advantage in every step I took in it. It made me find ways around the system and Minecraft is one of the only games where you can do that, because of all the flaws in its simplicity, that can either make incredible contraptions or can be used to give everybody that thinks differently an advantage. Which to this day is the reason I think Minecraft is the best game ever, if you play it differently (although I don’t like it that much).
What was the longest time period you spent gaming in one single session?
Probably 10 hours on holiday. With bathroom and meal breaks.
Is gaming common among your friends and colleagues at school?
Yes, it is. But it’s very easy to see how they play games, why they play them and what they achieve. And most of the time, I think people don’t play a video game to learn from it, but instead to just “have fun” but that’s why kids get bored so fast of a game, which means they have a very unhealthy mindset in the game, which can be seen in real life too.
Why did you stop ? I think you told me that you wanted to be more social, lose weight and do more sports and other activities – anything else?
I did it to lose weight and become a new person, but still used what I got from gaming to give me a social edge. What I mean by that is; since I’ve had a very ‘educational’ experience gaming, I’ve gained communication skills that not many people have and strategic thinking in real life. Most importantly I learnt a lot about people. I’ve also made more mistakes than one can count and this meant I’d make less in real life and be more mature.
Roughly how much weight did you lose when you stopped?
I found out that I lost 15kg (2.36 Stone or 33 lbs) in 8 months.
Can you describe how you feel now that you’ve stopped – what’s different/ What do you do that you didn’t do before?
I don’t get very mad very easily. I am more athletic than before. I cook every meal I eat and spend time with friends.
Do you feel good about yourself now that you’ve stopped?
Yes, I do.
So, do you think computer gaming was overall a positive experience, that helped you to survive your childhood?
I think for me, gaming was a good experience while it lasted but after it you realise that a lot of your time was wasted. To me I don’t think it was that wasted as I learnt a lot from it but for most people it would be a waste of time.
Luca’s words in that last answer above, can be taken as not that far from saying ‘gaming helped me survive my childhood’ and overall, they do highlight some very positive aspect of computer gaming activity.
So, should we be denigrating people who spend long hours playing computer games if in fact they are honing certain skills that may take them in the future to some very high level of ability?
After all, some of these abilities are sought-after in the real world in very obvious ways – for example, the military.
With warfare going more and more digital every year, and actual combat, rare though it might be for the average soldier, demanding lightening quick reactions, it’s not surprising that armies, particularly the US Military, are interested in gaming. They use it to identify suitable recruits and also to interest gamers in military activities and the military life. Games such as the successful ‘America’s Army’ work to interest young gamers in warfare.
A 2015 documentary entitled ‘The Gamers Recruited to Kill’ described how the US Military recruits young people with gaming skills to train as drone pilots who go on to carry out long distance drone strikes on targets in Pakistan and elsewhere in the region. The similarity with video gaming is obvious.
Luca therefore appears to confirm what Lang Lang, (and presumably Mozart) would have said – that long hours spent doing something repetitively and obsessively is not necessarily bad or even addictive, provided it produces positive consequences such as learning skills to a very high order or developing the ‘genius’ in a person. Indeed, if Luca should benefit from his gaming and progress in life by putting his quick-reaction and analytic skills, learnt through gaming, to good use as say, a forex trader, would we not applaud him?
What we are observing here is the difference between addiction and obsession. Luca, Lang Lang and Mozart may all have been obsessed with a particular activity, but they were in fact pursuing a different goal, other than the activity itself. That goal could be called ‘self improvement’. In obvious cases, it is taken to the highest degree, so that the person concerned becomes a world-beater.
For many people however, including children, early obsessions can turn into addiction with a range of negative consequences including isolation, depression, poor health, loss of friends and outside interests that far outweigh any skills that might be acquired along the way. Children should recognise the consequences of their activities as well as the benefits, as Luca did. And parents should be vigilant.
*by psychologist Anders Ericsson of Florida State University