What can I do to improve my self-esteem?

What can I do to improve my self-esteem? part 2

This blog post is the sequel to another article, you can read the first part here.

How was my «low» self-esteem shaped over time?

Consider again the idea of the piece of clay and how your environment has shaped your self-esteem. You have probably been in a myriad of situations during your life in which you have been evaluated in some way or another, or even self-evaluated (either explicitly – an exam – or implicitly – social situations). 

In these situations, you have probably emitted a behavior, leading to some kind of consequences that can be very unpleasant (belittling, teasing, telling yourself how bad you did and how clumsy you are), causing intense and unpleasant emotions (insecurity, discomfort, sadness, nervousness, disappointment), which have probably resulted in you tending to face these situations less often.

If this chain is repeated several times, this discourse about yourself will become more and more consolidated, and therefore, you will probably try to avoid the situations that trigger those thoughts, which in turn may prevent you from developing the necessary skills to build that «confidence» and change that internal dialogue, and you will become more and more insecure, resulting in a sort of vicious circle from which it is difficult to get out. In the end, this self-talk is eventually confirmed and becomes more and more stable and solid. We end up believing it.

Not only that, you will probably start generalizing that speech and that feeling of discomfort to other situations in which you are evaluated, thus making the spiral even bigger… to the point that that speech about yourself ends up losing its connection with reality and dissociating from your actual performance in the situation.

For instance, if you have lived in environments (work, family, social) where criticism was abundant, and most of your actions were followed by unpleasant comments (regardless of your actual performance), it is possible for these chains to have gradually built up and «you have ended up believing it». If I do a piece of work, and regardless of its quality I am told that it is worthless and that I have to improve it, or if I take part in class and the teacher makes a joke or gives me a reprimand, and I start to feel bad about it, generating thoughts and attributing the explanation to my own incompetence, this discourse is consolidated and I end up behaving in a more insecure way, which feeds back into this whole «loop».

The same thing happens on the other end, in which we can imagine that a person’s actions are constantly followed by praise, and mistakes or poor performance (whether social, work, etc.) are always attributed to external factors, generating and consolidating an internal discourse «immune» to the environment in which one ends up unconditionally «overestimating» the way one behaves.

This dissociation between the «real» performance of the person and that set of self-talk (accompanied by thoughts, emotions, and behavioral tendencies) is really the «the issue» in self-esteem problems, and the good news is that if we understand that it has been developed by these learning processes, we will have an open the door to try and modify it through the same processes, turning them in our favor.

So, what do I do to improve my self-esteem?

First of all, if you are really concerned about your self-esteem and you notice that it is negatively affecting several areas of your life, the best decision is not to wait any longer and talk to a psychology professional. A blog or a post can guide you in a general way, but a psychologist will take the time to conduct an analysis of your situation, trying to understand how you got to the position you are in, the variables in your life that are generating and maintaining the problem, and design together with you a treatment plan tailored to your personal situation to modify them and achieve your goals.

Keeping with our concept of self-esteem, if we understand it as that internal discourse that is not adjusted to reality, the first step in the chain will be to identify such self-talk.

Cognitive distortions

We all have a certain bias when interpreting the world around us, depending on our life history. Therefore, when faced with the same situation, we will all have a different perception and interpretation, as slight as it may be. In psychology, these biases and thought patterns have been studied, and in some cases, they can be detrimental to people’s well-being. Specifically, this series of thoughts are known as cognitive distortions.

These cognitive distortions have some key characteristics. Generally speaking, they are irrational thoughts that also seem «totalitarian» or extremely rigid and unquestionable, even though there is no evidence to support them («my co-workers despise me and I’m sure they think I’m useless»). Logically, these thoughts can lead to really intense and unpleasant emotions that generally keep you away from possible psychological well-being or the goals you want to achieve.

There are many cognitive distortions that have been given names. Labeling them and getting to know them can help you identify them more effectively and thus help you at least question them. Below are some of the most common cognitive distortions. It is a non-exhaustive list and you will certainly find them with different names depending on what you read, but they are useful to be able to identify them.

  • Filter or «selective abstraction». It describes the tendency to focus your attention predominantly on the more negative or «catastrophic» aspects of the situations you experience, almost totally ignoring the positive things in the situation. Pardon my choice of words, but it’s what my father used to describe as the fly’s poop on the bride’s dress. This selective abstraction would make you ignore the beauty, the design, and quality of the garment, and the joy of the occasion, focusing on and magnifying that minimal negative detail.
  • Dichotomous or polarized thinking. Reflects the tendency to think in terms of «all or nothing». Seeing everything as «black or white,» «good or bad,» and «perfect or disastrous» can cause you to miss the myriad nuances and variety in the situations you face. Imagine being in a driver’s license test, committing a minor mistake such as stalling the car, and thinking «I am the worst driver on this planet, I will never pass and I am a disaster in everything I do».
  • Overgeneralization: refers to taking one event or situation and extrapolating it to everything that happens in your life. That is, if something «negative» or unpleasant happens to you, you think it will always happen, generating defeatist thoughts in which you systematically assume the worst.
  • The «should” statements: These consist of certain rules or rigid expectations that we impose on ourselves and that usually when they are not fulfilled are related to intense and unpleasant emotions such as sadness, anger, or resentment towards oneself. «I should have done x». «I should have been stronger» «I have to be accepted by everyone».
  • «Jumping to conclusions»: this is about assuming as certain and inevitable some ideas about your environment, or inferences about what will happen in the future, without having any evidence that can truly support it. We can think of the typical «I will never pass this exam», «this person thinks I am stupid because of what I just said» or «if he says no to the plan I have suggested it means he doesn’t want me in his life at all».
  • Personalization: we assume that everything that happens around us (usually bad) has to do with ourselves. We take the «blame» or responsibility for what happens. «this person is sad and bad because of me», «I didn’t accompany my friend home and that’s why she had the traffic accident» etc.

Just like these, there are many other «cognitive distortions» or small thinking errors or attribution errors that can play against the development of a good self-concept.

Questioning the narrative

Once these thought patterns and tendencies are identified, it would be appropriate to start questioning them in order to gradually modify our discourse (internal and external) to bring it closer and closer to reality.

The first step is to convince oneself that thoughts are not only modifiable but also that they do not necessarily have to be true. It is extremely common (it happens to all of us) to assume that what we think is true, and it is so implicit and automatic that sometimes we do not even consider whether what we just thought corresponds to the actual reality in front of us. In fact, in general, the aim of questioning your own thoughts is related to «opening» a little bit the range of things we expect to happen, knowing that yes, the option we have in mind is possible (it is possible that X person does not like you) but it is not necessarily likely and that there are an infinite number of other variables that you are «filtering» to keep the «worst possible» one for you.

Therefore, this second step, after identifying these generally «absolutist» and self-critical statements, is attempting to shift your attention to the other world of possibilities, especially those that may be more objectively related to the evidence available before you.

For this purpose, Collado-Díaz et al. (2022), from the Applied Psychology Department of the Autonomous University of Madrid (CPA-UAM), recommend applying 3 «filters» that can help to question these self-critical thoughts. The three levels of questioning include the following:

– Evidence

– Utility

– Severity

The evidence filter simply refers to questioning yourself and analyzing the situation in search of evidence that truly supports the thought concerned. Is there evidence to show that this is true? Is there any other possibility or explanation? In the past, have I thought the same thing on occasion and it didn’t turn out to be true?

The utility filter, as the name suggests, consists of questioning whether this pattern of thought will actually have positive consequences that will bring you closer to your goals, or whether, on the contrary, they are thoughts that may lead you away from them.

The severity filter refers to the idea that all those explanations or consequences that we predict through our thoughts are not, in the end, as serious or catastrophic as we imagine them to be. Moreover, even in the worst-case scenario (in which those thoughts come true), there would still be room for action to improve the situation.

– Shifting the spotlight

Once we have automated the process of questioning assumptions and thought patterns, and we run them through these «filters», it is time to start shifting our focus to other options, explanations, or thoughts that are more in line with reality and give more importance to the positive aspects of ourselves. Imagine, for example, seeing yourself as you see someone very important to you, or as a good friend or someone who really appreciates you would see you.

Take some time to think about positive aspects or what you value about yourself in different areas of your life, be it academic/professional, personal, family, social… Etc. Try to make this a habit to try to change that «standard» tendency you had to analyze everything in an excessively critical way. And practice before, during, and after every situation that challenges you or makes you nervous before you face it!

Remember that this is simply a blog post that addresses the concept of self-esteem in a broad way. The best option to work on it, if you think it might be a problem in some area of your life, is to see a professional psychologist who can adapt their knowledge to your life history and the variables that come into play in your unique situation.

References

Collado, A., Chamizo, I., Ávila, I., Martín, S., Revert, À., & Sánchez, A. (2022). Protocolo de evaluación e intervención en autoestima.

Froxán Parga, M. X. (2020). Análisis funcional de la conducta humana. Concepto, metodología y aplicaciones. Pirámide.

How the Self-Esteem Craze Took Over America And why the hype was irresistible. https://www.thecut.com/2017/05/self-esteem-grit-do-they-really-help.html

Real Academia Española (2014). Diccionario de la lengua española (23ª Ed.). S.L.U. Espasa Libros: Barcelona

Roca, E. (2014). Autoestima sana: una visión actual, basada en la investigación (2ª Ed.). ACDE Ediciones: Valencia.

Alejandro Sancha Moreno
Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
Alejandro Sancha Moreno
Psychologist
Children, adolescents and adults
Languages: English, French and Spanish
See Resumé

Self-esteem. What is it and how is it shaped? part 1

Self-esteem: What is it and how is it shaped? part 1

Folk psychology

After several global, economic, and social crises, as well as the ongoing health crisis, there is an increasing amount of talk about the psychological problems affecting our society. Talking more is not necessarily positive but can be seen as a double-edged sword.

First, as the number of psychologists participating in the media grows, as well as the time they spend on talk shows, psychological problems in society are becoming more visible and relevant. The general public is becoming more and more familiar with and aware of the extent to which these difficulties can have an impact on people’s daily lives.

However, as these are day-to-day issues on which everybody can give their opinion since all human beings «behave» (think, feel, act), psychological terms begin to fade away, losing their precision and getting mixed up with everyday language. This distortion of psychological terms is very characteristic of psychology. It is precisely one of its inconveniences since it floods it with myths and beliefs that create a fog in which it is difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.

«Folk self-esteem»

Self-esteem is one of those words that are submerged in «folk psychology», and we come across thousands of self-help books, products with slogans about loving yourself, courses to be happy and «increase» your self-esteem, and even ideas and proverbs in everyday language that can create an illusion of lucidity regarding a concept that in general has little clarity. We talk about «having low self-esteem» as a cause of professional, psychological, or social problems, about «high self-esteem» as a prerequisite for success or happiness, and tips are listed everywhere to increase it. But… What is self-esteem?

The Cambridge dictionary defines self-esteem as «belief and confidence in your own ability and value».

The APA (American Psychological Association) defines it as the degree to which the qualities or characteristics contained in the self-concept are perceived as positive and states that a reasonably high degree of self-esteem is considered an «important ingredient of mental health», while low self-esteem is a common symptom of depression.

It seems that the definitions we have either give us a vague sense of what we are talking about or they mix up self-esteem with other constructs that would also need to be explained (what is this self-concept?). Moreover, we also begin to talk about ingredients and «good mental health». Perhaps you will tell me that this is nonsense and that everyone understands the metaphor of the ingredient. And I will say that the devil is in the details. And I will explain… Language is the main tool we have to get an idea of what surrounds us, transmit it, and » seize» reality… and it has enormous power when it comes to interpreting or perceiving the concepts we use.

 

When I refer to self-esteem as an «ingredient» when I say that John «has» very good self-esteem and that Ellen «does not have» self-esteem… I am reifying the construct (treating an abstraction, or concept as though it were a real object or material).

These subtleties regarding the way in which we conceive these ideas or constructs are quite important, since the idea that self-esteem is something that one either has or does not have within oneself becomes established, and we end up using explanations that are a bit redundant and circular. For example, we end up saying «wow, I am not able to speak in a group of friends because I have no self-esteem» or «wow, I do not love myself because my self-esteem is very low…» which in the end can lead to a dead end in which we do not explain anything nor do we know how to get out of this impasse. In addition, when you are repeatedly told «you have to love yourself more», «you have to believe more» or «you must have more self-esteem»… and we see self-esteem as something that others have and we don’t… we end up feeling guilty and frustrated for not being able to find that thing. As an example I will give you this quote:

 

«You will only be loved and respected if you love and respect yourself. Never try to please everyone; if you do, you will be respected by no one»

Paulo Coelho, Manuscript Found in Accra

 

Is this really so? If I strive all my life to «find» or «improve» that thing I have within me (self-esteem) and I do not succeed, I might feel a sense of guilt and also assume that no one will respect me in my life. 

Therefore, these definitions, as well as the common concept of self-esteem in everyday language, convey a vague notion of its meaning but are far from providing us with the necessary tools to address and modify it if necessary. Moreover, the spotlight has traditionally been focused only on low self-esteem problems (as reflected in the APA definition), sometimes ignoring the serious emotional and social impairments that the other end of the spectrum (exaggeratedly positive self-esteem regardless of the situation) can entail.

 

«Breaking down» the concept of self-esteem

 

In general, current conceptualizations of self-esteem refer to attitudes (or trends of stable feelings, actions, and thoughts) towards oneself. 

The first step in developing tools to improve self-esteem is to find a definition as operational as possible, which will allow us to «land» all the ideas previously discussed in this regard. A definition that allows us to get to the «core» of self-esteem and understand the factors that modify and maintain it, will be the one that will enable us to tackle a potential problem related to self-esteem.

In 2020, Dr. Froxán and her research group came up with a definition that allows us to get closer to the essence of what we understand by self-esteem. According to them, self-esteem is a word or label that refers to the verbalizations with which people describe themselves. It can be composed of more or less adaptive thoughts about oneself and one’s behavior, which in turn can trigger different emotions that lead the person to exhibit certain behaviors (one can think negatively about oneself, causing unpleasant emotions, which favor certain behaviors – such as avoidance, for example).

 

In short, self-esteem is seen as a set of verbalizations (or what we tell ourselves about ourselves), which can generate certain emotions that in turn can have an effect on how we act.

This definition allows us to approach self-esteem in a more direct way, a little beyond the fact of «having or not having» self-esteem or «loving oneself», and gives us an opportunity to understand and modify it in a more practical way. 

Thus, self-esteem would be a product of learning through the different experiences lived by the person throughout their life, and is therefore modifiable through the same processes by which it has been shaped. Let us imagine (at the risk of «reifying» the concept) that self-esteem is rather a piece of clay on the artisan’s table, whose hands represent the whole history of the person’s experiences. Each movement of those hands shapes the clay, each element of that history of learning permanently «molds» that self-esteem… which never becomes a finished product, but is in perpetual change and adaptation as the artisan’s hands (or the infinity of variables in a person’s environment) act. 

We thus see self-esteem as a flexible construct, which, although having a certain stability, can change from one moment to the next depending on the variables of the context, and is malleable (modifiable) through the same laws of behavior that have been shaping it up to now.

Thus, we see that the dichotomy between «having low or high self-esteem» is actually somewhat misleading and that in fact what people «have» is a verbal repertoire that is more or less adjusted to express an opinion about themselves. The translation of a «low self-esteem» would then be a set of mostly «unpleasant» or aversive adjectives (such as «I am stupid», «I am so clumsy that nothing works out well for me», «I am useless», «I am horrible»), as opposed to a «high self-esteem» which would actually be a set of pleasant or appetitive verbalizations.

Therefore, the problem is more about the degree of adjustment between these verbalizations and the person’s actual reality. That is, a person may have adequate skills and show a performance that is completely adjusted to the situation and instead continuously describe themselves as «incompetent». On the other side of the continuum, it may happen that a person who, regardless of their performance, uses a repertoire of adjectives and positive verbalizations that are very distant from reality. In both cases, these individuals’ «self-esteem» may lead to problems of adjustment to their respective environments, and the common denominator between the two is the discrepancy or dissociation between the person’s self-talk and their reality.

We are going to explain in the next blog post how to increase your self-esteem. 

Alejandro Sancha Moreno
Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
Alejandro Sancha Moreno
Psychologist
Children, adolescents and adults
Languages: English, French and Spanish
See Resumé

"Loot boxes", the new slots?

"Loot boxes", the new slots?

Loot Boxes have aroused much interest and controversy in recent years due to their great similarity to games of chance, and their widespread use in an increasingly younger population. Especially in a context where bookmakers and gambling problems are the order of the day. In fact, the consumer ministry intends to reform the gaming law to include the regulation of these “loot boxes” in video games in Spain. In this post we will explain what they consist of, the psychological mechanisms on which they are based, and how to deal with them in an appropriate way.

What are Loot Boxes?

It is a virtual item present in numerous video games, which once acquired, offers a randomly generated reward or prize (Brooks & Clark, 2019). They can be obtained by “merits” (playing, overcoming challenges and requirements), buying in-game currencies and then exchanging them for a loot box, or buying them directly.

They usually take the form of a chest, box, envelope, or something similar. When opened, it is combined with a very striking audiovisual content, reminiscent in many respects of «slot machines» (lights, sounds, spinning wheels …). They can adopt very different aesthetics and forms depending on the game, but the mechanism and the function are usually really similar (Dummond & Sauer, 2018).

1. Example of Loot Box in the game «Brawl Stars»

They can offer rewards that give the player an advantage, or «features» that simply allow you to change the aesthetics of the game. They are generated by algorithms, and while some objects appear very frequently, others are very rare and difficult to obtain. These acquire more value and end up being highly coveted by players, offering a very attractive feeling of exclusivity when they are obtained.

It can be understood as something similar to the trading cards of a lifetime. We do not know what is inside each envelope, and by opening it we could get stickers that we already had and that do not work for us, or new stickers that are rarely available.

What about psychology in all this?

There are several learning laws that rule the behavior of human beings. Simplifying a lot, the consequences of a behavior are largely responsible for the fact that said behavior tends to be repeated in the future, or tends to disappear.

If the behavior in question tends to disappear, the consequences serve a “punishment” function. If the probability that the behavior will be repeated in the future increases, then we speak of a reinforcer.

The point is that to get a reinforcer, sometimes we have to emit a behavior several times. Suppose we want to go to a concert, and we have to buy tickets by phone. If the lines are saturated, they may not catch it the first time. We will have to call several times (behavior), until they answer us in order to buy the tickets (reinforcer). We don’t know how many times we have to call until the phone is picked up.

In psychology, the number of times we have to emit the behavior to access the reinforcer is called the reinforcement program. It can be a program with a fixed ratio (the behavior is emitted a specific number of times) or a variable (the behavior is emitted a variable number of times, which is not known a priori).

The case of the call would be an example of a variable reinforcement program. To understand each other, it is the program that «hooks» the most and the one that is most difficult to get out of: we don’t know how many times we have to call to get the phone picked up, so we keep calling. Sometimes we get an answer after two calls, sometimes after the sixth call. Something like the stickers: we don’t know how many envelopes we have to buy to get the one that interests us, so we keep buying. Translated into video games: I don’t know how many «coffers» I have to buy to get the object I want to touch, so I keep playing or spending money to buy more. The only certainty we have is that if we continue to insist, at one point or another we will get the reward.

This mechanism is present in many video games that will surely sound familiar to you, either because you or your acquaintances play them, such as Fornite, Brawl Stars, Candy Crush, Fifa, Call Of Duty … or almost any recent video game.

2. Loot Boxes in FIFA20 (packs)

They are specially designed for this purpose, and they even use a very similar language to refer to items (common objects, legendary, epic … Objects of gold, silver, bronze …). In this way, I don’t know how many envelopes I have to open for get Leo Messi, so I keep playing / paying to open more envelopes, until I get rewarded with Leo Messi.

What risks are there?

Loot boxes, along with other video game features, can carry some risks. Let’s consider the following:

  • Loot boxes are based on variable boost schedules (as we just saw).
  • They are usually free access games or at very low cost.
  • They are easily accessible for both adults and children.
  • The «loot boxes» tend to have a very low price (we often talk about microtransactions).
  • The effort to get the «loot box» playing is much greater than touching a button to buy many of them.

This combination of factors creates a great «highway» that paves the way for behavioral problems related to video games, and there are already a large number of studies that even somehow link these mechanisms and the appearance of problems with gambling. (Books & Clark, 2019 .; Castillo, 2019 .; Drummond et. Al., 2020 .; Drummond & Sauer, 2018 .; Zendle, Meyer & Over2019 .; Zendle & Cairns, 2018).

The issue acquires greater relevance when it comes to a very young population, which grows and lives with this type of reinforcement programs, stimuli and ways of behaving on a daily basis until they normalize and become familiar with them, being even more difficult to learn to relate from healthy way with this type of games.

Although it is not necessary to be overly alarmed, there can be daunting situations in which large sums of money are spent on these types of microtransactions. There are many examples, such as the case of a young British man who spent his mother’s savings on FIFA, the young man who made more than 80 purchases in 3 days, or another young man who spent 1200 euros on Fortnite, among many others (enough with a Google search about it).
In the press, these are the cases that usually receive the most coverage and attention, although they are the least frequent. The problem is not the product itself, but the use we make of it and the reasons why we use it.

To get an idea, it is estimated that in 2018 the video game industry generated around 30 billion dollars through the purchases of these “loot boxes” (Juniper Research, 2018). It is not surprising that Spain and other countries (such as Belgium and the Netherlands) try to somehow regulate this type of transaction, which is increasingly seen as a “gateway” to gambling.

What I can do?

If this worries you, you have several options. The first and most obvious is to limit your payment options and playing time. Each game has its own transaction system, and it is advisable to know each one of them to limit the payment methods associated with it (whether they are credit cards, debit cards, paypal, etc.).

Being a general post in which we cannot go into each game, it is best to discover and learn about each of the devices or games, since each one has different control mechanisms. Here are some pointers to help you find your way around the main consoles.

If you know someone who plays these games and you are worried about a very good option, combined with the previous one, is to talk to them. Show interest in what they do, and share a moment in which they explain what the game they like so much is about will always be positive. You can explain what these loot boxes consist of and the consequences they can have, in a positive way.

If you consider that it may be a problem (whether in children or adults) and it has consequences on a day-to-day basis, do not hesitate to seek psychological help.

Alejandro Sancha Moreno
Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
Alejandro Sancha Moreno
Psychologist
Children, adolescents and adults
Languages: English, French and Spanish
See Resumé

Pandemic and Videogames. Is it an Addiction problem?

Pandemic and Videogames. Is it an Addiction problem?

In this blog post we will look at some of the changes brought about by the pandemic, the circumstances that have led us to spend more time in front of screens, and some of the characteristics of video games that can lead to overuse. We will also look at why it can be wrong to label it as addiction, and some ways to try and change problematic use. We have had to rely much more on new technologies to try to carry out both work and leisure activities, while reducing direct contact with other people. Remote work, video calls and internet-based entertainment have become part of everyday life in almost every household, creating the perfect conditions for the amount of time we spend in front of screens to significantly increase...

Pandemic times

The Covid-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on all areas of our lives. We have had to adapt unexpectedly to new and changing situations, living with permanent uncertainty. The mental health consequences associated with the pandemic are manifold, ranging from discomfort and other isolated symptoms to the development of complex problems such as insomnia, depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder, among others. (Ramírez-Ortiz et al. 2020).

Restrictive policies have led to a reorganization of our lives and a loss of the variety of pleasant and enjoyable activities previously available. In a few weeks we went from being able to leave the house freely, to meet with friends and loved ones, to travel, to do engage in different leisure activities... To no longer being able to do most of them. Even under normal circumstances, a loss of gratifying activities like this is likely to generate problems related to mood, stress, and anxiety, among others.

In addition to this great reduction of pleasant stimuli, many unpleasant stimuli have emerged. For months, we have seen very harsh images on television, we have experienced or heard painful stories of people who have been directly affected by the virus, overcrowded field hospitals, people who have not even been able to say goodbye to their loved ones... In one way or another, fear has been present in people' s lives.

One of the areas that has been most affected by health policies is the social sphere, one of the most important aspects of human life. Indeed, even under normal circumstances, people who are socially isolated and have limited mobility are more likely to develop a variety of psychological problems (Huremović, 2019). All these factors have led us to rely much more on new technologies to try to carry out both work and leisure activities, while reducing direct contact with other people. Remote work, video calls and internet-based entertainment have become part of everyday life in almost every household, creating the perfect conditions for the amount of time we spend in front of screens to significantly increase.

Video games

The video game industry has experienced exponential growth in recent years, surpassing even the cinema and music industries. Their use as entertainment has become widespread, and despite having been considered for a long time as something appropriate for children and teenagers, today they have spread to people of all ages and characteristics and are even a source of income for many.

However, they have been the target of much controversy regarding their potential negative consequences on health, especially among children and adolescents. All sorts of negative consequences have been attributed to them, leading to alarming news headlines and stories. They are often automatically linked to addiction, mood disorders or violent behavior, creating public alarm and aversion towards them.

It is important to note that the use of video games is not harmful per se. Many other variables must be considered, such as the use that is made of them, the purpose they serve for each user, and the specific circumstances of each person. In fact, several studies have shown the positive impact that video games can have on people's cognitive, social, and psychological abilities (Vaamonde et al. 2018).

Pandemic and Videogames. Is it an Addiction problem?

Is there such a thing as a video game addiction?

Directly associating video games with addictive disorders is a tricky question that needs a lot of clarification. Firstly, because there are many types of video games, and secondly, because it would be necessary to define what we consider to be an addiction. We shouldn't go to the extreme of scaremongering, but neither should we ignore something that can pose a real problem. In fact, the World Health Organisation has recently defined the "video game use disorder", which reflects that there is some concern, and that there are people who do indeed have a problem with the use of video games. But can we really talk about an addiction to video games?

When do we talk about addiction?

Addictions are complex disorders, and it is not possible to address them in a single post. However, there are some core characteristics shared by all addictions. There are two main aspects to be considered, without which it is probably not possible to talk about an addiction:

  • Lack of control
  • Significant disruption of the person's life.

Addictions are complex disorders, and it is not possible to address them in a single post. However, there are some core characteristics shared by all addictions. There are two main aspects to be considered, without which it is probably not possible to talk about an addiction:

  • Lack of control
  • Significant disruption of the person's life.

 Lack of control is a core component of addiction. When the urge to do something begins to take control over our behavior, and we lose the ability to stop it, we are dealing with compulsive behavior.It starts becoming something automatic, and we begin to dissociate the enormous motivation we feel for doing something, and the actual satisfaction and gratification that finally comes from doing it. This is one of the first signs of a problem: a behavior that becomes automatic, over which we have less and less control, and for which the real satisfaction does not correspond to the overwhelming urge to do it.

In terms of the impact on the person's life, we refer to the fact that the addictive behavior significantly interferes with personal life, in any of its spheres (family, work, leisure, personal life, etc.). The activity in question begins to affect the person's mood, and there is a functional impairment and an obvious impairment of the individual's quality of life.

There are many other criteria for addictions, and many approaches have been proposed to explain them, but there is a broad consensus that, if these two main criteria are met, we can start talking about addiction.

Coming back to video games and children, in general, in most of the cases in which we speak of "children addicted to video games", these characteristics are not present. It seems that the behavior does not have such a marked compulsive nature, and the motivation for playing is actually linked to the satisfaction or reward that is obtained by playing. Although it is debatable whether it is better or worse than other activities, people who spend a lot of time playing video games do not necessarily have a problem with video games, and studies do not show a clear correlation between the time spent playing video games and the problems they cause.

Then, where is the problem with video games?

What has been discussed so far does not mean that there are no issues related to their use, nor does it detract from their importance. Instead of focusing on the time they take up, we should shift the spotlight to other features such as:

  • What is done in-game
  • The purpose it serves for the person playing it

The use of video games can serve many functions and have many causes. It can be a mere source of entertainment that is very rewarding in its own right, or it can be used as a way of coping with other kinds of problems.

Sometimes it may be used for less functional reasons, such as avoiding other situations, to reduce discomfort, or to channel other frustrations and shortcomings in other areas of life. And when gaming becomes a means of escaping the discomfort of situations outside the virtual world, it can become a problem.

For example, a child or adolescent may experience a lot of anxiety in social situations, with a lack of skills to interact in a satisfactory way with other people. However, in the video game he has his own avatar, he is very good at it and seems very competent, so he feels respected and admired by others. If, in addition, it allows him to channel all the frustration and discomfort caused by situations in other areas of his life, and games are an escape route to avoid dealing with them, in this case the game can have negative effects by preventing him from developing behaviors that would be more adaptive in other situations. It is therefore important to find out why playing is important and rewarding for the player, and why they are not receiving similar rewards from other activities.

Again, in this case the use of the game itself is not the problem, but the means or strategy for dealing with the underlying issue. Therefore, we should look at the causes behind the use in each individual and the function they fulfil in each case, and not so much at the game itself. Video games are also an extension of the individual's reality, they are not a world apart, especially for the youngest. Therefore, it is likely that if there are problems in the "real" life of children or adolescents, they will also appear in the "online" world.

Gambling and video games

Another major conflict area that can cause issues is the use of tokens or virtual currencieswithin video games. When we consider non-substance addictions, we often talk about the use of the internet and social networks, video games, and gambling. And in fact, among these cases, gambling is the only non-substance addiction on which there is a strong consensus. Here is where the problem arises, as in recent years the boundaries between the world of video games and the world of gambling have faded. A phenomenon has appeared among video games that shares many characteristics with gambling, which has attracted a great deal of attention: Virtual currencies, and Loot Boxes, which we will explain in more detail in another post.

Virtual currencies are nothing more than an internal currency that can be acquired (with real money) in certain video games, opening the possibility of making transactions within the game. And this fact sets a big difference, opening the gate to gambling-like or identical behaviors, even offering the possibility of betting.

When we consider the characteristics of Loot Boxes, we can quickly see many similarities with gambling - they are "boxes", "chests", "packs" or similar, which can be bought, without knowing what is inside until they are opened.Depending on the game, inside these loot boxes there may be items that allow players to progress faster or that provide them with an advantage (for example, in FIFA envelopes they may receive much better players than others), or purely cosmetic and decorative items such as "skins" or complements for their characters, which are more related to the status and exclusivity they provide to the player. And these types of transactions can cause problems which are closer to the etiology of addiction.

In this case, there is also a social dimension, where exclusive or very rare in-game items are obtained, which are very rewarding for players and give them status within the community. And as mentioned at the beginning of this post, the social sphere is one of the areas that has been most affected by the pandemic, something that may have contributed to the increase in its use.

If we take a step back and look at the bigger picture, we see that health restrictions have led to isolation and social distancing, forcing people to spend more time at home. Many video games offer a space for socializing and are also designed to keep users playing for as long as possible. They include very salient stimuli for players, they are enjoyable activities, and they have become very important in a context where many leisure options have diminished or completely disappeared. These conditions have therefore led to the perfect environment for players to spend more time using them.

However, video games cannot be considered addictive per se, and we must look at each person's circumstances to understand why they are being used in that way, decide whether it is really a problem, and then make the most suitable decisions about it.

To recap:

  • The pandemic has brought major changes to our lives, reducing the «menu» of rewarding activities we previously had, and increasing the unpleasant experiences to which we are exposed.
  • In this environment, new technologies have gained great relevance, both for work and leisure activities, and our time devoted to screens has increased significantly.
  • Given the social aspect of many video games, it is to some extent reasonable that their use increased during the periods of restrictions, given the large decrease in the number of alternatives available.
  • Video games are not harmful or addictive intrinsically, it is necessary to carefully examine the reason why each person plays and the function that their use serves in each case.
  • Although we are not talking about addiction, excessive use of video games can be dysfunctional and cause great discomfort if they take up a lot of time and are used as a means of channeling other deficiencies or avoiding certain situations. Again, each case needs to be examined on a case-by-case basis.
  • Some video games include gambling-like features, such as loot boxes, which can result in problematic use and lead to addictive behaviors.
  • If you are concerned about your situation or that of your children, the best option is to speak to a professional: each case is different and a psychologist can examine the variables that influence such behavior, the role it plays and suggest a plan to change it.
  • If the problem is with children/adolescents, learn about the risks (such as how loot boxes work), take an interest in your child’s likes and dislikes, understand why the game is important to them, and set agreed boundaries with them. Try to understand the reward they are finding in the video game, and why they may not find it in other activities.
  • Show interest in them, in their world, as it can be a space in which to share time with them, teach them good strategies to interact with technologies and establish a healthy relationship with video games, which can be extended to any potentially harmful behaviour in the future.

References

Huremović, D. (Ed.). (2019). Psychiatry of pandemics: a mental health response to infection outbreak. Springer.

Ramírez-Ortiz, J., Castro-Quintero, D., Lerma-Córdoba, C., Yela-Ceballos, F., & Escobar-Córdoba, F. (2020). Consecuencias de la pandemia Covid 19 en la salud mental asociadas al aislamiento social.

Vaamonde, A. G. N., Toribio, M. J., Molero, B. T., & Suárez, A. (2018). Beneficios cognitivos, psicológicos y personales del uso de los videojuegos y esports: una revisión. Revista de Psicología Aplicada al Deporte y al Ejercicio Físico, 3(2), 16.

Alejandro Sancha Moreno
Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
Alejandro Sancha Moreno
Psychologist
Children, adolescents and adults
Languages: English, French and Spanish
See Resumé