Click photo to enlarge
Joseph Ross, 10, prepares to hit the ball during a game of baseball with the "Wii" in Pleasant Hill Calif., Thursday, March 27, 2008. The Ross family is an example of a family that uses Wii to enrich family time, and keeps close watch on what's happening online. (Bob Larson/Contra Costa Times)
A few weeks ago, Walnut Creek Intermediate's auditorium was crammed with parents anxious to hear therapist Steven Freemire's take on Wii, iPhones and cyberaddiction. He started the talk with a few examples drawn from friends' and patients' experiences, including the following scenario:

It's a sunny Sunday afternoon, and a Walnut Creek teen is indoors, gazing unblinkingly at the flickering screen. For hours, she buffets the game controller buttons, eager to reach the next level and the next and the next. It isn't until six hours later that she finally tears herself away and goes on with her day.

"Problem?" Freemire asked the crowd.

Seventy hands shoot toward the sky.

In truth, however, the answer is no.

This particular girl has a great circle of friends, gets consistently good grades and plays competitive soccer. And after an intense week, capped off by a Saturday spent entirely on the soccer field, she was simply decompressing on a Sunday -- her one day to relax -- with a brand new video game.

"Six hours could be a danger," said Freemire. "It wasn't in this case."

Less than a year after the American Medical Association backed away from labeling video game addiction a mental illness, the debate rages on, particularly for the families of the 10 percent to 14 percent of avid gamers who have become so obsessed with video games, Facebook and other computer-based pastimes that their virtual lives are damaging their reality.

"There's a fine line between addiction and the fact that most of our lives are spent on online," said Larry Rosen, a CSU Dominguez Hills professor who wrote "Me, MySpace and I: Parenting the Net Generation." "Kids? Their whole social life is online. They're IMing and if you throw in texting and (school) work, it's 50 hours a week. Is that addicted or are they just responding to their world?"

The line is crossed, he says, when grades drop, chores go undone and children disappear from the family dinner table, wooed by the allure of that glowing screen.

It's not just teens, of course. The Chinese man who died last year after playing a video game for three straight days was 30. And in 2005, the Chinese government opened a computer addiction clinic after two other young men collapsed and died after marathon game sessions.

In fact, while we most frequently associate cyberaddiction with video games, adults are notorious for their dependency on Blackberries, compulsive e-mail checking and the "just one more thing" approach that keeps them online half the night, said Lafayette therapist Dominic D'Ambrosio.

A 2006 Stanford School of Medicine study revealed that 14 percent of the nation's Internet users -- adults, not children -- found it difficult to stay offline for several days, and nearly 9 percent had lied about their Internet use to spouses, friends and colleagues. D'Ambrosio has seen cyberaddictions devastate marriages and careers. When parents start looking at Internet addictions, he said, they need to look at the behavior they're modeling first.

But it's simplistic to point a finger at any one game or technological tool in particular. Like any substance abuse issue, said D'Ambrosio, "The one that's a problem is the one that's a problem for you."

Between Facebook, games, instant messages and texting, today's youth culture is plugged in -- to the Internet and each other -- 24/7. So where do you draw the line between connection and addiction?

When the virtual overwhelms the real world, said Freemire. Take, for example, the young East Bay tween obsessed with the "World of Warcraft," a massive multiplayer fantasy game Freemire and D'Ambrosio call "the heroin of online -- powerfully addictive and seductive."

The game had taken over the niche normally occupied by real-life interactions with other people. It had become, said Freemire, "the one place he was joining the world." Bringing him back to the real world took months of therapy, a wilderness camp and boarding school.

According to a Harris Interactive poll conducted last year, the average tween plays 13 hours of video games each week. Teen boys average 18 hours. Interestingly, young gamers worry about their own level of addiction. About 44 percent of the young gamers in the survey reported their friends were "addicted" and 23 percent of the boys said they worried about themselves, too.

Determining addiction is about more than just adding up the hours, said Douglas Gentile, an Iowa State psychology professor who directs research at the National Institute on Media and the Family.

Gentile adapted gambling addiction criteria from the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic manual on mental disorders to paint a vivid pathological portrait of kids -- and adults -- whose obsession with and need for increasing amounts of game play to reach the same level of thrill, spills into the rest of life, sabotaging relationships, school, work, and eventually health.

The toll is severe enough to arouse the concerns of parents and the psychological community alike. Computer addiction clinics are springing up, not just in Beijing, but Holland and the United States. Addiction Web sites also can be found online.

But if families and video gamers themselves knew what to watch for, experts say, problems could be alleviated before they become destructive.

"A parent has to be really proactive," said CSU Dominguez Hills' Rosen, "because by the time it gets to the point you're noticing, you're now reacting. You have to get in there and understand what your kid would look like if he were addicted. You have to be up front with the kid: here are the symptoms, if I see it happening, here's what we're going to do."

The challenge, said Rosen, is that most parents he talks with "have absolutely no idea what their kids are doing. They don't even understand what MySpace is and what function it plays."

And rather than diving into this technological, decidedly non-"Pong" world, said Freemire, too many parents skew to extremes. They ban video games based on parental buzz rather than expertise. That was the case at a party Pam Whitman attended recently, where parents peppered a video game-playing dad with questions.

"The one you're telling (your child) to play is actually more violent than the one you're not," the father told stunned parents.

Another mistake is to take a laissez faire approach, relying instead on their children's ability to self-regulate their own use. Developmentally, those children may not be ready to do that.

"I actually consider my kids pretty addicted to games," said Whitman, a Walnut Creek mom. "If we truly said (they) could, they'd play all day. Some kids can self-regulate and some kids can't. And my kids don't want to self-regulate."

And self-regulation is key, said Freemire, because trying to ban the Internet is like banning food. It's too ingrained in daily life at school, at work and at home, precisely because of its positives. It's a potent communication tool that makes the world a smaller place.

"This whole global village thing is real," said D'Ambrosio. "My kid knows a lot more about Barack Obama, Hillary and McCain, where India is, the Himalayas. The Internet can take you out of Walnut Creek. They see the world outside of their life and their house. In part, that's why it's so powerful. It brings meaning."

Text messages become notes of reassurance flowing between kids at college and their siblings back home. Facebook, Skype and Web cams bring far away friends and family close. And Joseph Ross' grandparents swing by his Pleasant Hill house each week to play.

"They always want to do the Wii bowling," said Joseph's mom, Julie. "My dad's 83, and we can't keep him away from the Wii."

The reality is that computer-based activities play a central role in today's youth culture, whether it's a post-slumber-party Wii spree at the Ross home, or the mega-"Halo" tournaments at the Peiros family home in Moraga, where Campolindo senior Jake Peiros links friends' televisions and game systems through a network router so everyone can play together.

"It was part of a big social outlet," said his mother Carole. "I would have 15 kids over here playing, laughing, hooting it up and having a great time. Personally, I prefer that to having them out carousing."

Jake figures he spends two to three hours online on a typical school day and twice that on weekends, depending on what else is going on. But he has friends whose online involvement makes Jake's eyebrows rise.

"I don't know about addiction," he said. "They play five to six hours a day, then get burned out. But it's not where they can't stop. It's more obsession."

Reach Jackie Burrell at jburrell@bayareanewsgroup.com. Read the aPARENTly Speaking blog at http://www.ibabuzz.com/aparentlyspeaking/.

Online

  • Join an online Q&A session on Internet and video game addiction Monday from noon to 2 p.m. at http://www.ContraCostaTimes.com. The online forum features Cal State Dominguez Hills professor Larry Rosen, author of "Me, MySpace and I: Parenting the Net Generation;" Walnut Creek family therapist Steven Freemire; and Gamester video game bloggers Gieson Cacho and Danny Willis.

  • When it comes to video games, how much is too much? Take our online poll at http://www.ContraCostaTimes.com.

  • Explore the latest video game trends on Gamester, the video game blog, at http://www.ibabuzz.com/videogames/.

  • Join the video game discussion from a parenting perspective on the aPARENTly Speaking blog at http://www.ibabuzz.com/aparentlyspeaking/.