[May 2016, Edit/Correction: Dr. Paul Zak's research seems to imply that electronic communication can stimulate oxytocin release, so please take that into consideration when you read the following article and comments]
Are computer games addictive? Are online games needing regulation and oversight? While the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network has debated these issues, the Korean government recently decided to act unilaterally to protect its children from what they perceived as a threat, not waiting for the international community to come to consensus.
I am not going to attempt to answer the above questions directly, because I think they are the wrong questions. Instead I am going to suggest better questions and solutions to those questions. While any entertaining activity can be addictive, recent changes in technology are exposing us to changes in the way we interact as a society that go far beyond the issue of addiction to a single product. What we are watching and feeling, in real time, is a fundamental change in the way our species forms community.
I see community as a fundamental need, both psychologically and physically. Humans are an extremely social species, and we even have a hormone, oxytocin, that rewards us for social interaction. Not having enough oxytocin can lead to depression and disease. Thus I do not see social interaction as a luxury, I see it as a basic human need. A human can live a healthy life a lot longer without a supply of an essential vitamin like B-12 (we can store up to 5 years of it in our bodies) than we can without social interaction.
If you agree that social interaction is an essential human need, and not a luxury, then it is not hard to see the interactive media industry as providing goods of high value to society. One might also argue that we can provide social interaction anywhere, under any conditions, at any time, for arguably less money per time unit than all previous forms of entertainment.
Now not all interactive media is created equal, and since the technology is still new it can be said that the quality is still relatively low but increasing steadily over time. Even something as essential as food can kill you over time if you repeatedly make poor nutritional choices. Because children typically do not know the difference between food that is good for them and food that can harm them, this sets up a competition between parents, governments, and food producers. Children's cereal producers have been notorious for selling inferior nutrition products to children using cartoons, knowing that this is a vulnerable consumer group that can be manipulated easily into making harmful nutritional choices. I think it is fair to say that carbonated beverage makers have a similarly mixed reputation.
So it is a constant battle between parents and companies for the health of children. Governments will sometimes get involved on one side or the other. When governments seeking additional revenues agreed to place fast food franchises right on school campuses, the public health effects were catastrophic. Other times governments spend money in an attempt to improve nutrition in schools, sometimes successfully.
I believe that ultimately what our industry provides to consumers is community. You could argue that this is synthetic or artificial community, but in online games these interactions are usually between two or more real people using electronic interfaces. When I say our industry, I mean interactive media. I include social media in the larger category of interactive media, so for the purposes of this paper I am not just talking about games, I include all forms of social media including Facebook and Twitter.
Our species is drawn to community, by necessity. If a person's “virtual” community gives a greater sense of inclusion than their “real” community, then there is good reason to abandon the real community for the virtual community. This will often be misinterpreted as withdrawal and addiction by those in the “real” community, because from their perspective the other person's virtual community is invisible to them. Conversely, a person's real world physical state is invisible to the virtual community. This means the user of interactive media could be suffering from hunger, thirst, lack of hygiene, or professional or social irresponsibility without any help from their virtual community. This is where the person's activities of daily living can be undermined by their virtual community, causing heavy interactive media use to meet many of the definitions of addiction.
As peer group members increasingly rely on virtual communities for support, they increasingly abandon real world communication by necessity. If a friend prefers to use interactive media rather than in-person communication, then you are forced to either adopt the same media or possibly lose that friend. This can force a certain amount of virality in virtual community adoption.
Thus you have a competition between two often non-overlapping communities that may not individually meet the needs of each person. Should parents be involved in this dynamic? Presumably they are if they are indeed parents. If we were to go back in time to an ancient era, say 50 or more years ago, children would be encouraged to socialize with most everyone around them until some time at night where they were expected to be home and social time would wind down. Sometimes this was called “curfew”.
Now with everyone, including children, increasingly going to bed with an electronic device and waking up with an electronic device, the idea of curfew seems archaic. Why run around at night seeking social interaction when you can do it from the comfort of your home. You can even interact with multiple people at the same time that don't like each other or are in competition with each other, and they will have no idea you are doing so.
What if a parent or even an entire society wanted to restrict the viral movement to virtual communities to preserve at least some of the essential real world community formation? I think confiscating all electronic devices at night and returning them after school is a bit impractical. Some of these devices serve as a link between parent and child. Governments trying to restrict access to interactive media by children by classifying the media as addictive is, I think, missing the point completely. I did advocate before the ICPEN in October that game cards should be treated as a controlled substance because they are being used by children (and corporations) to bypass parental consent.
Already at least 22% of children (6.8M) playing mobile games in North America are spending money on mobile games without parental consent. This comes from an EEDAR survey of parents, so if we factor in unnoticed spending and the use of game cards, these numbers are likely much much higher. Clearly the ability of parents to monitor and approve the activities of their offspring is rapidly being undermined. I think it makes more sense to give parents the option of individually regulating their own children, than to have governments attempt to regulate everyone. The worst case scenario, the one we have now, seems to be a movement to criminalize those 7+ million children. While this may be welcome news to the prison industry, I do not think this is a long term solution to the situation.
I think the most immediate solution to the issues that parents and regulators are seeking to remedy is the ability for parents to set electronic curfews for their children. Real curfews. This would involve the makers of devices capable of accessing the internet placing parental controls that would allow all but certain functions on the device being disabled during parent determined time ranges. Let's say we have a smartphone, and we set a 22:00 to 08:00 lock on the device where it can only be used to call or text the phone number of the parent. This block can be removed temporarily or permanently by the parent and of course the process would have to be password protected.
From 08:00 to 15:00 any app needed for school could be enabled, and phone numbers could be approved individually. The child would be free to install any app they wanted, and input new phone numbers any time, but none of these would ever work or be enabled until a parent authorized them all individually. Of course a parent could just opt out of controlling any of this content, but the default setting would have to be total lockout so that the parent has to consciously give up this control.
The result would be to disrupt the viral move to virtual communities, at least during certain proscribed times like when children are in school. Young people would have more opportunities to learn how to interact with each other again in real space and would at least retain that as an option as they get older instead of being forced to compromise that path of social development once they are handed a “smart” device.
If all game/social applications are disabled on all children's devices by default until approved by a parent, then all of the issues that arise with F2P games, underage use of social media, and concerns about addiction disappear without the need for any government intervention. The core issue is not whether these products are dangerous or whether parents are doing a good enough jobs as parents. The issue is that the makers of technology are willfully introducing products that undermine the control and authority of parents, and in doing so allowing complicit companies (that typically pay back 30% of revenues to platform holders) to market directly to children without the knowledge of parents.
Of course then this makes the smart device the controlled substance, so that selling, giving, or lending one to a minor without parental consent would become illegal.
Why am I so worried about the move to virtual communities? I've personally spent over 50,000 hours studying and writing about virtual communities, so obviously I must see merit. As a species we have a hormone that promotes real world community building. It is the same oxytocin that I mentioned earlier. It is released in response to touch and speech with loved ones (including pets). Texting does not appear to trigger release. If electronic communication provides dopamine and endorphins, but not oxytocin, then we are getting only two of the three primary reward chemicals. This is enough for us to feel content, but lack of oxytocin leads to psychological depression and immunosuppression. Going back to the junk food analogy, this could make participants of virtual communites feel “full” from consuming a food that has low nutrients, leading to various disease states. We already know that a child, not understanding the long term implications, can eat a lot of junk food. Adults can make the same poor choices if they do not have complete knowledge of the consequences of their actions.
Is this what is actually going on? I don't know. No one knows. It could be years or decades before we know the effects of our current technology on children, and by then we will have moved on to a new technology. Our children are the lab rats, and while this is the best way to gather data, it seems risky to gamble the future of our species by testing the entire species. If parents want to volunteer their offspring to help us gather data, I think that is great. I love data. Those that feel more selfish/protective should be given more “opt-out” options.