Study suggests pathological gaming is a symptom of bigger problems — rather than a unique mental disease

Some people play video games so much that it results in significant problems in their social relationships and daily functioning — a situation known as pathological gaming. But new research conducted in Seoul suggests that the games themselves might not be the primary source of the problem.

“I’d been interested in the topic for awhile — research on pathological gaming actually goes back a couple decades,” said study author Christopher J. Ferguson, a professor of psychology at Stetson University and the author of “Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong.”

“One of the questions we’ve been asking is whether games are really the problem, or if other factors such as family environment or social environment led to problems and overdoing games was merely a symptom of those problems. Should we be thinking of pathological gaming as its own diagnosis or more of a red flag that the person is experiencing other mental health issues?”

The researchers surveyed 477 boys and 491 girls once per year for four years regarding their relationships with their parents, their social support, their academic stress, their self-control, and their gaming behaviors.

Ferguson and his colleagues found that self-control had a stronger relationship with pathological gaming than time spend playing video games.

In addition, participants who felt subjected to more overprotective parental behaviors and had less parental communication tended to have higher levels of academic stress, which in turn predicted a lack of self-control and an increase in daily gaming hours.

“Our study was conducted with Korean youth. In South Korea, there is particular pressure socially to succeed academically. Our evidence suggests that pathological gaming doesn’t originate so much from exposure to games, but through a combination of academic pressure and parental pressure,” Ferguson told PsyPost.

“This causes stress and a loss of self-control, wherein youth use games as an escape from their stress. Rather than thinking of pathological gaming as a disease caused by video games, we might be better to think about it as symptomatic of a larger structural, social and family problem within a person’s life.”

But the study — like all research — includes limitations. In particular, it is unclear how well the results generalize to other countries and cultures.

“I think the main caveat is, of course, this is a sample of Korean youth and we can’t be sure that the patterns of pressure necessarily apply to youth from other countries such as the U.S. or U.K. For instance, within U.S. samples I’ve worked with, evidence suggests pathological gaming results from other mental disorders such as ADHD, but does not cause them in return,” Ferguson said.

“This is a tricky topic because we have a historical pattern of people (particularly older adults) reflexively blaming technology and media for perceived social problems. Our data suggests we have to be cautious in blaming technology for behavior problems — often the picture is much more complicated than that.”

The study, “Pathological Gaming in Young Adolescents: A Longitudinal Study Focused on Academic Stress and Self-Control in South Korea“, was authored by Eui Jun Jeong, Christopher J. Ferguson, and Sung Je Lee.