Enticing video games pose the risk of addiction
BY LAURA SCHREIER
The Dallas Morning News
DALLAS - As a freshman at the University of North Texas, Daniel Folmer would sometimes play video games for 12 hours straight. He stopped going out with friends. He sank onto academic probation.
When his girlfriend came over, he stayed in his virtual world. Then she told him something that jolted him back to reality.
"She just waited for me to look at her, or acknowledge her, or hug her or whatever, and she said she fell asleep waiting," he said. "I looked in the mirror, and I did not like who I was becoming."
Folmer sold his online gaming account and now, at 21, is a rehabilitation studies major and wants to be an addictions counselor.
Now that another hot summer has arrived, many kids are spending lots of time inside with their computers and video games.
And experts say what starts as a harmless pastime can become an escape from reality ( an emotional coping mechanism ( that turns into an addiction.
The trend can be seen as far away as Amsterdam, where a center recently opened to combat the problem.
Closer to home, mental health professionals who were once dismissed as alarmist are now being asked for advice on how to deal with the problem.
The trouble is not everyone has Folmer's self-discipline.
Hyke van der Heijden, a 28-year-old Dutchman, said his gaming problem got so bad that he flunked out of college. He said pot smoking and gaming kept him emotionally sedated for years. "The games, that was my comfort zone. That was the only reality I could manage."
Van der Heijden sought help at Smith & Jones Addiction Consultants, the Amsterdam clinic that opened the video game addiction center this year. John O'Neill, who heads the Professionals in Crisis Program at the Menninger Clinic in Houston, said the number of technology addicts is increasing, if only because the options keep growing.
Chat rooms, friendship networks such as MySpace, a multitude of traditional video games and massive multiple-player games all can lead to compulsive behavior. In online games, for example, thousands of players worldwide enter a complex game that cannot be beaten and is always changing.
O'Neill said the Internet fuels other addictions as well: Gambling addicts have online casinos, and shopping addicts can buy with a credit card number and a click of the mouse.
"In a way, the Internet is like Las Vegas," he said. It offers anything you want; it seems like the perfect place to cut loose for anonymous fun; and it's open 24 hours a day.
A technology addiction is like any other, said Keith Bakker, director of Amsterdam's Smith & Jones Consulting. It's an escape from real-world problems.
Such addictions often go hand in hand with emotional problems such as depression or anxiety, and often accompany drug abuse, counselors say. But just because someone plays video games doesn't mean that person will become addicted. A person has a problem if gaming affects other areas of his or her life, such as losing sleep or neglecting relationships.
"Someone who goes with the flow, who's got great adaptability, usually is someone who's not going to get addicted," said Mary Donna Noack, youth and young adult services director of Solutions Outpatient Services in Dallas.