Playing a dangerous game?

Television, video games, computers and the internet have all received their share of criticism from those worried about the various effects of too much screen time on users, but recent deaths and new research findings on addiction are taking concerns about excessive gaming in particular to a new level.

Canberra psychology researcher Olivia Metcalf recently revealed scientific findings that showed some excessive gamers could not stop thinking about gaming when they tried to focus on other tasks - an "attentional bias" also found in heroin, alcohol and gambling addictions.

The problem was only found in a minority of gamers who could not stop playing: "It's not something that occurs because you do a behaviour a lot. It's some sort of change that occurs in your attention system, in your brain, when an addiction is developing," Ms Metcalf said. Negative consequences for affected gamers included problems with sleep, diet, relation ships, work and school commitments. Ms Metcalf said the research provided some of the first scientific evidence that video gaming could be addictive and "that's the first step to lead us to developing treatment and therapies to help those individuals".

Whether or not Ms Metcalf's findings are in fact the first proof of the addictive nature of gaming, it is certainly clear that debate and fears over the issue have existed for many years. Some Asian countries have implemented online gaming restrictions - including around age, length of sessions and spending - and some have also set up dedicated internet or gaming addiction treatment facilities, predominantly for teenaged boys and young men. One in China was reportedly set up back in 2004.

In Taiwan in February, a 23-year-old gamer reportedly lay dead in an internet cafe for nine hours before being noticed. He had apparently had a heart attack after playing games solidly for 23 hours.

In July, it was reported an 18-year-old collapsed at a Taiwanese internet cafe after playing non-stop for 40 hours.

In February last year, a 30-year-old Chinese gamer reportedly died after playing for three days with little food or sleep. Similar deaths were reported last year in China and Britain.

In August this year, a 15-year-old US boy reportedly collapsed several times after playing one game almost continuously for four or five days in his room at his home and was treated in hospital for severe dehydration and exhaustion.

And there have been appalling cases of neglect. In 2009, a South Korean couple hit the headlines when their three-month-old daughter died from malnutrition, having being left unattended while they went to internet cafes and spent hours playing a computer game that - incredulously - involved raising a virtual character of a young girl.

In January 2011, US researchers found video game addiction could lead to depression and anxiety in children, whose school performance suffered. It found gaming provided an outlet for children who were socially awkward to lose themselves, but then contributed to their depression.

And therein lies part of the problem. The attraction with gaming and online gaming is it allows users - of all ages - to escape from reality and create a world in which they can be someone, or something, else through adopting game personas. Online games can involve multiple users and the challenge of trying to reach higher levels - often with rewards up for grabs - contributes to their addictive nature. And the increasing prevalence of internet cafes, personal computers and smartphones allows users to be online all the time.

As we move ever faster into the digital age, it is inevitable our youth will do a vast amount of their learning and playing onscreen and online. But it would seem, if we want to avoid turning them all into online junkies from an early age, exercising an "all things in moderation" approach is the wisest course. A mix of more "traditional" forms of socialising and entertainment, along with sport and exercise, and of course a healthy dose of parental responsibility, will enable children to grow social skills and lead balanced lives away from the box. For entertainment is supposed to be just that - not a lifetime addiction that destroys one's ability to function in the real world.