Slave to the screen

Benjamin Wong
Benjamin Wong (BSc 98) quickly veered from the lab into counselling after graduating from UBC. For the past decade he’s been treating video game addiction—and he has advice on what parents can do to make the most of screen time.
  • Benjamin Wong
  • BSc 98

Were you always interested in video games?

I was a gamer myself. There was a summer at UBC that I found myself playing 2,600 hours of Warcraft. I did it to cope with stress. I have first-person experience of how this can ruin somebody’s life. That experience paved way for an appreciation of how addictions work. I started working in this area 10 years ago, when Richmond Addiction Services Society expanded their mandate to include video games as the first of many behavioral addictions.

Is it just video games that can be addictive, or any kind of screen technology?

What video games, social media and website design have in common is that they are using cutting-edge psychological research in their design. They need to hook people. Two years ago videos on Facebook started to play when you rolled over them without the click of a button. That’s a dynamic that catches people’s attention. Companies want you to stay as long as possible on their platform.

How are these addictions different from drugs or alcohol?

Certain screen interactions, such as receiving a text message, light up the dopamine centers of the brain very much like when someone gets hit with crystal meth or cocaine. From a practical standpoint, drugs have immediate physiological issues, but in the long-run, video game addicts have demonstrated the same social and psychological consequences. It’s very similar to gambling.

With virtual reality games now commercially available, will video game addictions become more prevalent or does the platform not make a difference?

The more stimulated our society as a whole is, the more prevalent addictive behaviours will become. One of the things we don’t discuss regarding the fentanyl crisis are the social factors that fuel the epidemic. We’re raising a generation that can’t wait, who are anxious, who are constantly seeking novelty. Therefore, I anticipate more addictive behaviours, new forms of them, and new forms of risk. Three years ago the DSM 5 included Internet Gaming Disorder as a suggested future diagnosis in order to encourage research into the condition. So we’re seeing a lot of new studies.

What can we do to mitigate these types of addictions in young people?

I encourage parents and caregivers to be mindful of the purpose behind a digital activity. Consider non-digital alternatives. Ask yourself if this is really necessary. Also make sure you’re developing skills rather than increasing access to something new. There are many ‘soft’ qualities such as leadership or motivation which are not technical lessons. It doesn’t take one a lifetime to learn how to code but it can take many years to develop integrity.

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