It’s not them, it’s us: the real reason teens are ‘addicted’ to video games | Keith Stuart and Keza MacDonald (2024)

On Sunday the Observer magazine published a sensitive piece about video game addiction, speaking to therapists working in the sector and one affected family. Genuine, compulsive, life-altering addiction, whether to video games or anything else, is of course devastating for those affected by it. Since the WHO classified gaming addiction as a specific disorder in 2018 (distinct from technology addiction), the specialist National Centre for Gaming Disorders set up in the UK has treated just over 1,000 patients. Thankfully, the numbers suggest it is rare, affecting less than 1% of the 88% of teenagers who play games.

The article asked, “why are so many young people addicted to video games?”, which no doubt struck a chord with many parents who despair at the amount of time their children spend in front of computers and consoles. Speaking as the video games editor and correspondent at the Guardian, however, we think that most of us who are worried about how long our teenagers are spending with games are not dealing with an addiction problem, nor with compulsive behaviour. If we want to know why many teens choose of their own free will to spend 10 or 20 hours a week playing games, rather than pathologising them, we ought to look around us.

Gen Z are the most closely monitored generation ever to be born. We criticise children and teenagers for not going outside – but at the same time we’re curtailing their freedoms and closing their spaces. Parents will reminisce about how they spent whole days outside, cycling the neighbourhood, but at the same time they’re treating their children’s smartphones like tracking devices, demanding regular check-ins, infiltrating their social media feeds and databasing their activities and friend groups. The pandemic may have abated, but it wasn’t just lockdowns that were keeping kids indoors.

And even without parental anxiety hemming them in: where are teens to go? In the last decade, YMCA data shows that more than 4,500 youth work jobs have been cut and 750 youth centres shut down. According to the Music Venue Trust, two grassroots music venues are closing every week. The nightclub industry is in freefall. Teenagers can’t hang around in parks without arousing the suspicion of overprotective adults who have decided these rare recreational spaces belong to their toddlers alone; city squares and skate parks and pedestrian zones that were once public are now being insidiously privatised, monitored via CCTV and policed by private security guards.

No wonder then, that teens withdraw to online video game worlds, the last spaces they have left that remain unmediated by their parents or other authority figures – the last places where they are mostly beyond the reach of adult control. You can spend all day with your friends in Red Dead Redemption or Minecraft or Fortnite doing whatever you like, without being moved on or complained about, or having to spend £5 on a latte every 30 minutes. If you can’t access therapy, at least you can relax with comforting games such as Stardew Valley, Unpacking or Coffee Talk, or chat things through with your friends in-game. You can travel freely, and for free, in Elden Ring or Legend of Zelda; no elderly relatives can suddenly vote to restrict your access to the continent in Euro Truck Simulator.

It is undoubtedly true that spending all day in your bedroom is unhealthy and alienating. But can you blame this generation for being more anxious and withdrawn? They were recently imprisoned in their homes for over a year. There is massive despair and disillusionment at a world in which home ownership is a fantasy, where steady careers for life are increasingly rare and where young people are accused of being lazy and complacent. The minimum wage for an 18-year-old in this country is £8.60, meaning that an hour’s work might just about buy them a pint in a London pub; that’s if they can find work at all.

Other than games, the media landscape is dominated by news sources that mock and vilify young people as woke softies while also criminalising them. The Tories’ last ditch attempt to garner support before the election was to bring back national service for 18-year-olds – to teach them respect and public mindedness. This is the generation that just put their lives, their friendships, their love affairs and their education on hold to save their grandparents. We shouldn’t be surprised they want to escape to virtual worlds. We should be surprised they ever want to come back to the one we’ve built for them.

Meanwhile, genuine action on the climate emergency is being hamstrung by ineffective politicians snuggling up to polluting corporations, and by rightwing conspiracists who deny there’s a problem at all. Pundits wring their hands over the extent to which we should allow protesters to close roads, while water companies fill the sea with human excrement. These people will all be dead when the time comes to reap what we’ve sown, but Gen Z won’t be – it’s the one lifelong job they’re sure to get.

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Today’s teenagers play games more than any previous generation. They’re also suffering a mental health crisis, with one in three reporting mental health issues, from anxiety and depression to, yes, addiction. If there is a relationship between these things, it is not a causative one. We are keen to blame anything from smartphones to social media to video games for the problems that our kids are experiencing – anything, that is, except ourselves.

It’s not them, it’s us: the real reason teens are ‘addicted’ to video games | Keith Stuart and Keza MacDonald (2024)
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