Why does the media hate video games

Internet and Computer Game Addiction - Dangers, Causes, Prevention

1. Differences between harmless, excessive and addictive computer game use

The use of computer games is harmless if children / young people grow up in an emotionally and socially stable environment and receive the stimulation they need for their development. This includes not only reliable family relationships (conceivable in very different family constellations), but also a conducive environment in the social setting (school, neighborhood and relatives), with public funding having a special responsibility. In the area of ​​play - as a central area of ​​childhood / youth - a particularly large part of social-emotional personality development takes place. Computer games have become an important cultural asset today, which is just as much a part of the world of children and young people as other cultural assets (film, print media, theater, etc.). First of all, every cultural asset is beneficial for personality development. Problematic personal developments can only occur if a cultural asset cannot be used due to specific living conditions and deficits that have arisen. This can occur, for example, if, due to social isolation, only cultural assets that are used individually (e.g. reading a book) are used as the cause, or if relationships in real social life are replaced by virtual relationships (e.g. online games).
Excessive use of computer games cannot be normatively limited in the form of a fixed limit, but depends on the network of social relationships in which an individual grows up. Excessive use of computer games can arise if one dimension of personality development cannot develop any further due to a prolonged imbalance of the various forms of game and / or an overweighting of games over other areas of life (learning, work, nutrition etc.)
The term addiction is no longer used today in the relevant sciences (medicine / psychiatry / psychotherapy). Instead, one assumes a comprehensive dependency syndrome (cf. ICD 10), with a distinction between “substance-bound” (e.g. alcohol) and “not “materially bound” dependencies (gambling, television) differentiated. Computer game addiction should therefore be viewed as a behavioral disorder that is not stimulated by a specific substance. Such a behavior disorder ("excessive computer game use") is not caused by dependence on substances, but can only be correctly diagnosed as a specific personality disorder, the development of which is largely due to the addict's living environment.

In 1995, New York psychiatrist Ivan Goldberg jokingly invented “Internet addiction” as a sham diagnosis, with Goldberg today being one of the critics of the concept of Internet addiction. Instead of the expected amused reactions from colleagues, however, Goldberg received a large number of emails from people affected by it. Finally, "Internet Addiction" became a general public issue in December 1996 by the New York Times. Since then, numerous international psychologists have taken up the topic, e.g. Kimberly Young with her book “Caught in the Net” (1999). When the term “addiction” (or “addiction”) is used today, reference is often made to the recognized medical definitions (DSM IV). In contrast, the classification of the World Health Organization (ICD 10) does not use the term addiction, but the term dependency syndrome. Both definitions are based on substance-related addiction: “An essential characteristic of the addiction syndrome is current consumption or a strong desire for the psychotropic substance. The inner compulsion to consume substances usually becomes conscious when an attempt is made to stop or control the consumption ”. However, “Internet addiction” is not such a substance-related dependency. Therefore, to this day, health insurances and government organizations in Germany refuse to recognize internet addicts as pathologically ill. On the other hand, there are numerous initiatives that campaign for the recognition of internet addiction as a disease, e.g. the German initiative "HSO" ("Help for self-help for online addicts e.V." - www.onlinesucht.de), which was founded in June 1999. From a psychological point of view, an appropriate definition of Internet addiction is now based on the recognized gambling addiction. Hahn and Jerusalem already proposed in 2001 to understand internet addiction as a modern behavioral disorder and escalated normal behavior in the sense of excessive and medium-oriented extreme behavior. In terms of classification, internet addiction could then be classified as a specific form of technological addiction that is characterized by human-machine interaction (which would then also include computer addiction or television addiction, for example). Technological dependencies in this content classification would themselves be a sub-category of behavior-related, substance-independent dependencies. In the diagnosis of gambling addiction, Young classifies those people as internet addicts who meet at least five out of eight criteria over the course of the year (e.g., a high level of being taken up with the internet, inability to abstain, tolerance development, withdrawal symptoms). Similarly, Hahn and Jerusalem (2001) identified five criteria that apply to internet addiction:

Narrowing of the behavioral space: Most of the time of day budget is spent on Internet use or computer maintenance, etc. over longer periods of time.
Loss of control: Control over individual internet usage is largely lost and attempts to reduce or interrupt usage remain unsuccessful or not even made.
Tolerance development: The "behavioral dose" (i.e. the time spent on the computer) to achieve the desired positive mood is constantly increased.
Withdrawal symptoms: Impairments of psychological well-being (restlessness, nervousness, dissatisfaction, irritability, aggressiveness) and psychological desire for Internet use as a result of temporary, prolonged interruption of Internet use occur.
Negative social consequences: In one's own areas of life, work and performance, as well as social relationships, there are considerable problems due to internet activities (e.g. trouble with friends or employers).

2. Are there “dangerous” and “harmless” games?

Even with non-material dependencies, physiologically similar processes arise in the body as with substance-bound dependencies (especially through the production of endogenous opiates) when they are operated intensively and continuously (e.g. also when jogging). These processes contribute to a considerable boost in motivation. Psychologically this is described as the “flow effect” of being completely immersed in this activity. The flow concept (invented long before the first computer game) is particularly suitable for explaining the fascination of computer games (cf. Jürgen Fritz). Since the dependency ("addiction") does not arise from the medium itself (see above), it is also not possible to determine any special game genres that make people more dependent than others. It can only be said that a game that fascinates the player in a particularly good way is most likely to be associated with dependencies, because the better the flow effect works, the more the dependency-promoting factors acting from the environment can influence the player. In particular, games that appeal to the player on different levels of his perception (visual and auditory) and according to his abilities (game level) can contribute to a stronger flow effect. To put it bluntly: the better a game is, the more addictive it is! In principle, this rule also applies to other media that are associated with non-material dependencies (book fools, television addicts, etc.). The latest generation of computer games is able to optimally integrate the most diverse qualities of different media, and also to incorporate social communication. This quality creates higher causes of dependency, but also represents a higher threshold for entry into this medium. For this reason, more and more non-violent "casual games" and "serious games" are being developed again, but these can also be associated with patterns of dependency.

3. Correlations between excessive computer game use / addiction and age, gender, education and family

Reliable data from representative samples are not available. This is also very difficult at the moment, as the media themselves and the way they are used are changing at a rate that research is slow to follow. This is to be briefly summarized below from a psychological point of view:

  1. Age: Computer games in general are now used in every age group, but probably most in middle childhood (around 8-14 years of age) and middle adulthood (30-39 years of age), and computer games generally become more common in adolescence off again. The genre of role-playing games, in particular online role-playing games (e.g. World of Warcraft), is used most by adolescents and young adults, with a particularly large number of excessive players in the group of orientation-seeking (and mostly unemployed) young adults Find.
  2. Gender: Previous research has shown that boys prefer competitive and combat-oriented games, while girls prefer fun / humorous games and simulations. Recent US studies indicate a convergence of the sexes (girls also show interest in first person shooters).
  3. Education: In the past, console games were over-randomly popular with high school students, while high school students preferred computers to play with. Given the cross-platform production of games, this difference diminishes. The difference that middle-class families were more likely to find the money for online games is also decreasing in view of flat-rate broadband connections.
  4. Family: With regard to family forms, for example, there is an indication that single parents and one-child families have higher individual media consumption, but the parents' involvement in accompanying the children is also greater. In families with more than one child, games that are not age-appropriate are often played by accident. In socially disadvantaged families - in connection with increasing social isolation - media and especially game consumption increases very sharply.

4. Considerations on causes and prevention options

The development of theoretical psychological concepts for recording the social-psychological peculiarities of online communication is still in its infancy (see e.g. Döring, 1999; 2001). The peculiarity of personal anonymity on the Internet is discussed e.g. in the SIDE theory (Social Identity Model of Deindividuation). This model by Spears and Lea (1994) is based on the idea that computer-mediated communication promotes de-individualization. The concept of de-individualization introduced by Festinger refers to the phenomenon that individuals in group situations often show norm-deviating or aggressive, destructive behavior, as shown in many online chats. Earlier theories explained this phenomenon with the fact that in such aggressive chat behavior a loss of identity takes place (de-individualization), which leads to the fact that in the anonymous Internet situation internalized norms are no longer observed. According to this notion, the behavior of the de-individualized individual is uncontrolled and anti-normative. In contrast, the SIDE model developed by Spears and Lea assumes a qualitative change instead of a quantitative change in identity as the fundamental mechanism of de-individualization (“less identity”). According to this model, de-individualization is expressed in the fact that social aspects of the self become more guiding principles and personal aspects take a back seat. This reasoning draws on the theories of social identity and social categorization, both processes that are of paramount importance in adolescence development. In adolescence, the search for identity and personal development play a major role in individual development (cf. Oerter, 1995). Hahn and Jerusalem (2001) explain the more frequent occurrence of internet addiction among adolescents with the cognitive expectations that develop especially in adolescence. In this phase of transition from adolescence to adulthood, the Internet can also have a functional relevance for coping with developmental tasks (cf. Silbereisen & Zinnecker, 1999). This question on the role of the Internet in identity development was specifically examined in the empirical survey by Leithäuser, Leicht and Beier (2001). Various recent German studies have shown that young people have discovered an instrument on the Internet that supports them in developing their personality and identity. Especially the diverse communication possibilities of the Internet, as in many computer games, are used by young people - more unconsciously than consciously - to safely test new roles and to discover previously unknown aspects of their own identity. In the virtual space of the online chat, there are also very good opportunities to try out new roles and quickly switch from one identity to another. It is precisely the social-psychological peculiarities of the Internet (cf. Döring, 2003; Schachtner, 1997) that make it so attractive for young people. The Internet offers young people possible orientation in the difficult development phase for them with their physical, psychological and social insecurities. The anonymity and communication, which is often limited to text, offer young people in their inexperience a protected space to experiment. For example, you can quickly interact with others in synchronous communication in chat, but you don't have to get involved with the whole person. This is an opportunity for young people who are still unsure of themselves (e.g. in their perception of their own body, gender, etc.). Communication via the Internet, which is restricted to a few sensory channels, is therefore particularly attractive for young people, although it is still important (e.g. compared to the CB radio that used to be popular with young people) that global networking enables a huge potential of contact persons. On the Internet communication channel, some young people often experience more recognition from their peers than in face-to-face interaction. Internet contacts are only made “virtually”, but become very important if there is no corresponding recognition in everyday life. The tendency to internet addiction is therefore closely related to the specific socialization characteristics. Since one of the most important developmental tasks in adolescence is the separation from the parental home, the internet can also serve as a means of demarcation from the adult world. This high subjective functionality of the Internet could become a problem for some young people if the competence to implement the tried and tested roles in everyday life is poor due to unfavorable socialization conditions. If various negative factors add up in the family context and in the wider socialization environment, dealing with the Internet could become the sole occupation for individual young people in view of unresolved development tasks. It would therefore be desirable if future studies on the Internet addiction of adolescents from a developmental psychological point of view took greater account of the differential socialization conditions of different groups in adolescence. Preventive psychological or media pedagogical work should initially concentrate on promoting media skills and personal development. According to Baacke (1997), media competence comprises several dimensions:

  • basic knowledge in various areas of media studies,
  • comprehensive media use skills,
  • reflective media criticism and
  • creative media design.

For internet addicts, media criticism and media design certainly play a particularly important role. It is probably more motivational to promote new aspects of active creative media work and critical media reflection with “media addicted” young people than just relying on restrictions and prohibitions. Internet-dependent adolescents are certainly not "addicted" through the medium itself - in the sense of a substance-related addiction - but rather because of their individual socialization environment.Sensitivity for the development tasks of young people and offers for new play and learning environments (role play, theater) as well as the promotion of group processes are particularly in demand. The author's own experience from working in an Internet cafe shows that a double qualification is required for work on the computer as well as for socio-educational group work.

5. Acquiring skills through computer games

In the spectrum of different computer games, the many special types of computer games right up to the integrative genres of the new generation can provide diverse suggestions and support that have not yet been scientifically researched enough. Computer games can play a positive role in a wide variety of educational contexts, and multiple experiences have already been made in this regard:

  • In special education, simple educational games have been used to promote and practice cognitive skills since the 1980s
  • Computer games can contribute to improving hand-eye coordination and acquiring initial knowledge (counting) even in toddlerhood.
  • In preschool age, computer games support children in acquiring specialist knowledge and spatial knowledge.
  • From elementary school age, children improve their reading and writing skills and learn to use the communicative possibilities of the Internet themselves (e.g. chat, e-mail).
  • The latest generation of games (Wii console) also promotes body control and visual-motor coordination.
  • In complex computer games, children learn to decode audio-visual sequences (understanding films).
  • In online games in social groups, children / adolescents learn to follow rules and to control their own behavior appropriately.
  • In complex group processes (clans in online role-playing games) young people learn to deal with management tasks.

6. Media pedagogical recommendations for practical work

As a second pillar, the protection of minors needs an improvement in media education. It is important to set limits; clear restrictions are required with regard to content that is harmful to minors, but at the same time, the approach to promoting media literacy should be improved:

  • The use of computer games could be promoted with regard to the positive factors. Multipliers who use computer games in this sense should be supported by educational support (e.g. computer games in the open all-day school).
  • Excessive use of computer games is a signal for other causes of personality development that are related to the social and / or family context. To this end, the cooperation between media educators / youth protectionists and specialists in schools and educational counseling should be improved.
  • There are no special contact points for the worries of parents / teachers and problems of young people about excessive computer game use. “Computer game advice centers” (“Internet addiction advice”) anchored in the municipalities would be conceivable.
  • The Internet itself is an important platform on which - without fear of the threshold - many affected persons (parents / children / young people) seek advice and are very easy to approach (see experiences with online educational counseling).


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Further contributions by the author can be found here in our family handbook


Prof. Dr. Matthias Petzold (University of Düsseldorf, Soc.wiss.Inst.)



Tel .: 0221 9535031


Created on July 13th, 2009, last changed on May 18th, 2011