You don't have to buy into the drug panic narratives or drug addiction as a public health threat to believe that it's good news that today's teens are smoking less marijuana. If use of alcohol and smoking among teens went down, we'd see that as a good sign, too. Those substances are legal (as it seems marijuana is destined to become) but it doesn't mean we want kids using them at such a young age.
But when your career involves promoting teen addiction panics as a way of shaping public policy, well, perhaps that's not the best news. Jacob Sullum noted this morning that Nora Volkow, national director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, had no explanation why on earth this could possibly be happening. They were so certain that marijuana legalization would lead to a culture where teens thought toking up was just fine and the numbers would go up.
Nevertheless, Volkow was quick to try to turn good news into bad news. Teens aren't better off, she wants to insist. There's still a crisis! It's just a different crisis!
"The development of very, very fancy video games has resulted in a pattern of compulsive use of these games that may serve as a substitute for drug-taking," Volkow said in an interview. "I'm speculating, but it needs to be tested."
"I'm speculating," says the professional research psychiatrist who commands a remarkable amount of media attention. Her speculation made it into headlines of news coverage by Tribune News Service.
It doesn't take a whole lot of speculating to figure out what could prompt such a quick attempt to redirect. The rest of her response, "it needs to be tested," says a whole lot. It's a call for more research, more funding, more spending. The problem can never be "solved." There's more to do! If one panic gets disproven, look for another where the information is spotty to call for more research.
Analysis of video game addiction research compiled over at Psychology Today in 2013 shows that there's not enough evidence at the moment to suggest it's significant. The research shows that .5 percent of all gamers and 1.7 percent of ninth-graders show symptoms of psychological affects from playing too many video games. That's a pretty small percentage given how extremely popular video games are.
And even then, it appears as though video game compulsion often seems to be more of a symptom or a consequence of several other issues the person is dealing with. After looking over the research, Romeo Vitelli notes:
The motivation for playing also seems to be a factor in addiction. People who game for fun or socializing are less likely to become addicted than people who are caught up in the need for status or simply to escape from the problems in their lives. If you're dealing with real-life failure, escaping from that stress by playing games that give you a sense of victory or control over your life can be a helpful way of coping. Spending too much time online or "shutting out" the real world with intense gaming can be a different story, though.
That description sounds an awful lot like the difference between people who smoke marijuana casually for recreational purposes and those who become addicted to drugs. Given that video games themselves are not an actual drug and not a thing that you smoke or inject, if video game addiction exists, maybe consider it actually serves an indictment of some attitudes about the neuroscience of addiction.
When I read flippant and irresponsible public speculation about video game addiction by the likes of Volkow, I grow concerned about how the perceive gaming culture and what it actually means. Right now, thousands of gamers of simply fans of video games tune into social media sites like Twitch.tv, where they can watch other men and women like themselves play games live. There are guys on there who play games for hours on end, even sometimes having marathon 24-hours streams for their audiences.
Signs of addiction? Hold on. First of all, these are often very social experiences, at least for the most successful streams. The gamers interact with their audiences and sometimes each other. It's far from an isolated, lonely experience. Furthermore, there's an economic angle that is very relevant in the current job market (where millennial men have been dropping out due to lack of options). Viewers can tip these gamers, and streamers can also arrange for advertising and sponsorships. There are quite a few of these folks who are making living (or attempting to make a living) by streaming gameplay. As with any sort of entertainment industry pursuit, there's going to be a small number of participants who do very well, and many, many more who either struggle to get anywhere or are just doing it for their own fun.
We should be concerned about a psychological environment that uses potentially arbitrary standards like time spent gaming to determine what a "compulsion" is. I'm not saying that is happening here, but the desire to study "addiction" has embedded in its subconsciousness a desire to find a problem. A … compulsion … if you will. That Volkow just tosses out video games as a replacement for marijuana suggests strongly that she at least sees this form of entertainment as a threat to teens. We should be concerned about what sort of government spending could be encouraged in order to keep psychology-based teen panics ongoing.
Reason contributor and addiction expert Stanton Peele has been of the addiction-focused approach to drug use by the likes of Volkow and her peers. Last year he explained how the field of psychiatry was essentially contributing to addiction culture. Read his analysis here. Peele has a more pointed critique aimed directly at Volkow here.