Submitted by Anonymous on December 13, 2012 - 3:00am
Until the academic warning letter from my son’s college arrived home last December 23rd following his fall freshman term, he assured us that he was getting Bs in his classes.
Confronted with this letter, he broke down in tears, admitted that he spent most of the last half of the semester playing an online computer game, and didn’t attend the final weeks of classes nor even sit for his exams.
An activity that started out in high school for fun and as a coping strategy for stress had hijacked his brain, and he lost control. He was addicted – as are nearly 2 million other U.S. college students. And if the computer game industry continues to succeed in its marketing strategy to hook youth on their products, its market success will trigger bigger avalanches of academic warning letters every December -- unless college leaders take action to address this worsening epidemic.
For the past six years as an administrator at a large community college, I’ve focused on developing workforce education programs that have helped hundreds of at-risk students succeed in college programs. However, as a parent of a game-addicted college student living away from home on a college campus, I felt powerless to help my son succeed in his own college launch. As a young adult, he’s responsible for his choices, and he chose games over college success. At the same time, the heart of addiction is a loss of control, and still-developing teenagers like my son are especially vulnerable to the instant gratification of games that can entrap them into addiction before they know what has hit them. My hope is that our family’s story can help the higher education family grapple with this epidemic, so that other parents’ sons and daughters don’t experience the calamitous crash that my son did at college.
Excessive Gaming Linked to Lower Academic Performance
Because computer game-playing is legal, hidden away in dorm rooms, and doesn’t result in obvious impairments like drug or alcohol addiction, the problem has stayed under the radar. However, many studies have linked excessive computer game-playing to lower academic performance, as well as a variety of disorders often treated at campus health centers, such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, and social phobias.
Just like my son, they didn’t grow out of it on their own, either. Two years later, 84 percent of the pathological gamers in this study were still experiencing similar impacts, a finding that suggests that nearly 10 percent of first-year college students bring these pathologies to college with them. Students who reported pathological impacts played an average of 31 hours every week. Gaming within this subculture of students is so prevalent that my son convinced himself that 5-8 hours of daily gaming when he started college was normal.
Once these students arrive on campus, freed from the constraints of high school attendance monitors and parental oversight, students are more likely to binge on gaming, with results that can be as traumatic as my son’s. In the 2011 National Survey of Student Engagement, completed by 27,000 first-year students, over one-third of incoming males and nearly one-fourth of females reported playing computer games more than 16 hours per week. These students had lower SAT scores and lower high school grades, and completed fewer AP courses. So, they come to college less prepared to succeed, and are likely to fall further behind if their addiction takes root more deeply.
An older 2003 study of college students by The Pew Internet and American Life Project confirmed this crowding out effect, with nearly half (48 percent) of college student gamers reporting that gaming keeps them from studying. Perhaps the former Federal Communications Commissioner Deborah Taylor was ahead of her time in 2008, when she created a brief media firestorm with a speech in which she claimed that “one of the top reasons for college dropouts in the U.S. is online gaming addiction – such as World of Warcraft.”
Emulating the Tobacco Industry’s Marketing Strategy
This problem is poised to get much worse. More and more online computer games are designed to profit by hooking addicts -- starting at a young age -- on their products, just as cigarette makers profited for decades by hooking young nicotine addicts for a lifetime. This Christmas, children being groomed by game-makers will find "Halo" and "World of Warcraft"-themed Lego sets under the tree. At a 2010 conference, one industry executive admitted that “we have to bring them in and keep them addicted and make them keep playing.”
After the computer game industry succeeded in getting and keeping my son addicted at college, he was hardly recognizable as the high school senior with a 3.7 GPA, 2100 SAT, and active participation as a high school athlete and trombonist in five bands. In a 2010 magazine article, an anonymous game designer described the creepy science of addiction that designers are engineering into their products.
Game-makers’ profits increasingly rely on addiction. Consider the meteoric rise of the game that became an addiction as strong as crack for my son: Riot Games’ "League of Legends." In 2009, Riot Games released "League of Legends" as one of the first free-to-play online massive multiplayer games, which require no upfront subscription payment. They extract money from players later, after they get hooked. By the fall of 2012, Riot Games reported that "League of Legends" had 70 million registered player names and 12 million “daily active users” (likely addicts) worldwide. The company’s business model was attractive enough to score a massive $400 million payoff for the company’s founders when they sold the company in 2011.
Its phenomenal success has induced a Pavlovian response within the industry to design even more intense free-to-play games that seek to ensnare and addict its customers – with youth and college students directly in their crosshairs. This prospect should motivate every dean of student services into action to warn students, starting with the first day of freshman orientation.
Campus Strategies to Address Computer Addiction
Such warnings are rare, however. “Given that college students are at the epicenter of America’s computer addiction epidemic, I’m shocked at how few colleges and universities are addressing this problem aggressively,” says Hilarie Cash, executive director of ReStart Internet Addiction Recovery Center, and author of Video Games and Your Kids. One reason is that the problem of compulsive or pathological computer gaming is often hidden from college officials by addicted students.
For example, when the dean of student services asked my son why he was withdrawing from college, he said “because of depression” – without mentioning that he had spent nearly every waking hour in the last month of the semester compulsively playing a computer game while isolated his dorm room. This kind of response is typical of many addicts, who feel a deep sense of shame about their out-of-control compulsion for gaming, and engage in elaborate self-deceptions and lies to protect their addiction and their self-image. My son thought he was the only student with this problem.
Tracy Markle, Founder of Collegiate Coaching Services, has directly observed a chilling rise in pathological computer gaming among her young adult clients. “When we conduct our initial assessments on new male clients, 75% have some level of computer gaming and/or Internet abuse issue that contributes to the original presenting problems such as poor academic performance, difficulty concentrating, and social anxieties.” In addition to these reported problems, Markle points to other indicators of potential gaming addiction problems with college students, such as frequent absences from classes, roommate complaints, social isolation, and calls or e-mails from concerned parents.
Cash and Markle both encourage college and university leaders to provide in-service training to build awareness among staff – especially front-line leaders such as resident assistants, teaching assistants, and student health clinicians -- on how to recognize the warning signs of computer gaming. Colleges can also launch student awareness campaigns to warn students of these problems, and encourage affected students to seek help rather than to retreat into dangerous isolation. If my son’s college had trained its resident advisers to recognize that holing up in your dorm room all day, not emerging for classes, ordering delivery pizzas alone every night, and turning away friends at his doorway are all signs of a potential problem, he might have been steered to get help before he crashed so completely. Cash also encourages campus leaders to develop new campus resources, such as offering a 12-step group to address computer gaming, and building a referral network of local therapists who have experience with this unique form of addiction.
Computer game companies already have their grip on nearly 10 percent of college students. They are coming after more of them, with more potent products. You can’t stop them. But college and university officials can begin to address this issue by doing what we do best – education -- starting with ourselves to learn more about the growing epidemic of pathological computer gaming. Without action, we need to be prepared to mail even more academic warning letters each semester.
This essay was written by a community college administrator. Inside Higher Ed agreed to publish it anonymously to protect the privacy of the author's son.
Acknowledging that some students want to be able to study in their dorm rooms, colleges offer quiet housing options for students who need a calmer environment than the average residence hall might offer.
You’ve heard it again and again. "My vote doesn’t matter," students too often say. Others complain that politicians are "all the same and all corrupt." How do we overcome this cynical resignation and encourage students to register and vote despite their conviction that the game is fundamentally rigged?
In 2008, many students vested huge hopes in Barack Obama, reinforced by the enthusiasm of their peers. Now, they’re dealing with what veteran pollster Charlie Cook summed up as "disappointment and disillusionment." Too many regard electoral politics less as a potential arena for change than a corrupt swamp likely to drown their remaining ideals. In a Rock the Vote survey shortly before the November 2010 election, 59 percent of students said they were more cynical than two years before, and 63 percent of those who doubted they'd vote justified their likely withdrawal by agreeing that "no matter who wins, corporate interests will still have too much power and prevent real change." They did indeed stay home, with roughly four million fewer students participating than just two years before, according to the highly respected CIRCLE youth research center. For instance, Ohio’s student participation rate dropped from 69 percent to 22 percent, Wisconsin’s from 66 percent to 19 percent and Florida’s from 61 percent to 19 percent. (The Ohio figure is based on a small sample, size, but fits the larger pattern). Student participation dropped significantly in nearly every state.
Toss in uncertain job prospects, cuts to higher education, and massive student debt, and it’s no wonder that so many students despair about their power to make a difference in the electoral realm. That’s true even as they continue to volunteer in one-on-one service, with 70 percent of college freshmen considering it "essential or very important to help people in need." Last fall, at a University of Vermont dorm devoted to community service, students described an array of creative projects they were engaged with, then fell silent when Paul (one of the authors of this piece) asked about potential electoral involvement, finally concluding that the differences between the candidates barely mattered. In a Harvard University survey this spring, just 36 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds believed it was honorable to run for public office.
For those of us who follow elections closely, this is one of high stakes, with salient differences between the two major parties. It's also a key election for American higher education, given the fiscal pressures that both individual students and most campuses are facing. Because it’s a presidential year, more students will undoubtedly vote in 2012 than in 2010. But for many, across the political spectrum, the links between issues and candidates seem tangential and remote. If we want them to fully participate, we need to create a commons where they can reflect on issues and candidates, and provide a rationale for why their involvement matters.
The Numbers That Matter
This means offering examples of how close electoral races can be, educating students on issues and candidates, and making the case that, even if their preferred candidates will not usher in the millennium, working to elect them is still worthwhile -- in part because it will allow students to keep pressing them on all the issues they care about.
Resources for Engagement
How do we help students register and turn out at the polls despite challenging new voter registration and ID laws and other practical barriers? How do we help them research and debate candidate positions, debunk false campaign ads and rhetoric, and make informed decisions in their choices. The nonpartisan Campus Election Engagement Project works to help faculty, administrators, and staff involved their students in the election, offering checklists and other resources to help them register, volunteer, learn about the issues, and turn out at the polls.
In terms of ads and candidate stands, faculty can also refer people to respected nonpartisan websites like Factcheck.org and Flackcheck.org, from University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School, or other respected sites like Politifact.com.
Faculty can sign up to be notified and to connect with others working to engage at their schools at www.campusvotemap.info. We can also use the available resources to help students engage their friends and classmates, reaching out directly and electronically to ensure they have required identification documents, register in time, are educated on the issues, and get to the polls. There’s even a free downloadable smartphone app that helps them do this electronically.
We might begin by reminding our students of the very small margins by which critical elections have been won and stressing the importance of their vote, whoever they choose to vote for. That’s true both because of the immediate impact it may have, and because their participation will set a pattern in their lives going forward. We can talk about the 537 vote Florida total that handed George Bush the presidency in 2000, or the 312 votes by which Al Franken won the 2008 Minnesota Senate race. Students may assume that their votes will be inconsequential, but multiplied by those of all their peers, they matter, time and again.
Paul once interviewed a Wesleyan University student named Tess who, inspired by an environmental conference, joined with several friends to register nearly 300 fellow students concerned about environmental threats and cuts in government financial aid programs. Nearly all ended up supporting their strongly sympathetic congressman, who won re-election by 21 votes. Tess had hesitated before she began. She didn’t think of herself as a “political person,” didn’t want to come off like “a politician spouting a line,” and wondered whether her efforts would even matter. Nonetheless, she decided to go ahead and do the best she could. Had she done nothing, her congressman would have lost.
Paul had his own similar experience securing three votes for his preferred Washington State gubernatorial candidate on the day of the 2004 election. One forgot it was Election Day. Another didn’t know if it was still O.K. to use an absentee ballot. The third needed a ride to the polls. After three recounts, the difference was 133 votes, so had just a handful of his fellow volunteers had stayed home, or if there had been a handful more on the other side, the outcome would have been reversed.
But even when students recognize the math, many still resist participation. They’ll say they don’t know enough and that "the issues are too complicated." They’ll insist the candidates are really "all the same." They’ll say this even when candidates hold very different positions on issues from health care, climate change, sexual politics, and immigration to tax policies, higher education budgets, student financial aid, and likely Supreme Court appointments. For some, saying they don’t know enough may just be an excuse for withdrawal, though we’ve heard such statements even from many who are very involved in other ways. Others hold back because they feel helpless to change things. Caught in a self-fulfilling perception of powerlessness, they decide it makes little sense to take on the challenge of following candidates and issues.
We can begin to counter these cycles of withdrawal by helping students reflect on candidates’ positions, and helping them separate truth from fiction amid the barrage of attack ads that many will encounter — ads that risk deepening students’ sense of electoral politics as just a toxic field of lies. Students have told us repeatedly they want "more fact-based campaigning" and "to learn more about platforms." That’s something we can help with as educators, promoting both classroom and co-curricular discussions about where candidates actually stand.
But it’s not just lack of information that leads students to withdraw. When they say "My vote doesn’t matter," they’re also conveying a sense that the political system is so corrupt that no matter who wins, true power will remain in the hands of the wealthy and connected, and that the voices of ordinary citizens will be ignored. Even when they concede that their votes could alter the electoral result, many doubt that this will make a significant difference.
That’s particularly true in the current election, where many students are dealing with dashed hopes from 2008, and students of all perspectives have ambivalent responses to both presidential candidates. In Obama’s case, because his campaign drew so strongly on slogans of hope and change, and because so many students supported him, one-time supporters are particularly wrestling with disillusionment. Forty percent in a CIRCLE poll this summer described their prime response as “disappointment.” Many who lean toward Romney are also ambivalent because of the inconsistency of his stands and his deviation from their version of true conservatism. In contrast with four years ago, most seem to regard this election as a contest between candidates they have to apologize for, rather than ones who speak to their most far-reaching hopes.
From Lyndon Johnson to the Tea Party
One antidote to cynical resignation is historical context — which is something we can do our best to offer even if we aren’t historians or political scientists. The more students see their vote as promoting the kinds of changes they’d like to continue to work for, the more likely they’ll be to show up at the polls, bring others along, and stay involved after the election. We might suggest they view voting not as a sole way to make change, but one in which electoral politics complements other approaches in a toolbox of change such as, like one-on-one service or political organizing and protest. Carpenters don’t discard their saws or drills just because they prefer swinging a hammer. They recognize that you can’t build a house without using all three.
To familiarize students with the toolbox of social change, we can explore ways they can reach out on issues they care about, build broad coalitions, tell the story of the causes they embrace in a ways that will resonate beyond the core already converted (think of the gay rights movement for a successful example). More than anything, we can encourage them to persist in working for what they believe, whatever the inevitable setbacks. They’d do well to heed the conclusions of Meredith Segal, a young woman who founded "Students for Obama" on Facebook, grew it to 150,000 members, and then co-chaired the national student campaign from her Bowdoin dorm room. "Your candidate gets elected," she said, "Obama or anyone else. People think, ‘Here’s their platform, here are their policies. They’ll magically become law.’ But that’s never the way things change. You have to keep pushing. You have to keep working. You have to keep building that engaged community. You can never expect any elected official to do it all on their own, no matter how much you admire them or how hard you worked to help them win. Your election night victory is just the beginning of the process."
Historical examples can also offer powerful context. Think of the relationship of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to the civil rights movement. They were personally sympathetic but held the movement at arm’s length for fear of shattering the Democratic coalition, in which Southern segregationist whites played a major role. Johnson even opposed the seating of an integrated Mississippi delegation that challenged the official all-white one at the 1964 Democratic convention. Yet civil rights activists persisted and created a political and moral force so strong that it expanded the horizon of the possible. Johnson ended up investing all his political skill and capital to pass the civil rights and voting rights bills, even though he knew the likely costs to his party — and predicted, accurately, that the Democrats would lose the South for a generation or more. Johnson’s opponent, Barry Goldwater, was a staunch opponent of these laws, would never have signed them, much less actively pressed for them. It took both the right political leader and a movement systematically pushing them.
For a recent example, think of the Tea Party. They began (before they took the Tea Party name) by showing up at Town Hall meetings on Obama’s health care bill, publicly speaking out while most of Obama’s supporters did little beyond signing online petitions or emails. They organized through friends, colleagues and online networks. They aggressively recruited candidates and volunteered to get out the vote, sweeping state and federal offices in 2010. They obviously received a boost from financial backers like the Koch brothers, and from conservative media. But without ordinary citizens acting in a way that combined electoral and non-electoral involvement, they would never have made an impact. And they’ve clearly succeeded in changing contemporary American politics.
From a different political perspective, the Occupy movement similarly shifted initial public debate. Discussion of income inequality and unemployment rose dramatically in the major media in response to the (mostly young) people rallying in New York’s Zuccotti Park and similar public spaces throughout the country, targeting financial institutions they considered responsible for widening America’s economic divides. The movement influenced New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to reverse his initial opposition to renewing the state’s “millionaire’s tax,” and the Los Angeles City Council to pass a "responsible banking" ordinance that requires banks doing business with the city to disclose detailed data about local lending practices. The movement highlighted our distribution of wealth in a way that liberal economists had been trying and failing to do for decades. And many students still seem passionately interested in what’s happened with it. But because Occupy has been so adamantly non-electoral in its approach, and often ambivalent about coalitions with allies like unions, its impact on political policies and choices has so far been muted.
Beyond the Perfect Standard
When students resist electoral participation, it’s often from a sense that the sphere has become so corrupted, particularly by money, that it will in turn corrupt them to participate. They fear that it will undermine their authenticity and leave them craven and corrupt, like the Wesleyan student’s fear of becoming just "a politician." This fits the narrative that Paul’s Soul of a Citizen book calls "the perfect standard," where people decide that they can’t dare act for change unless they know every relevant 17th-decimal statistic, are as eloquent as Martin Luther King and as saintly as Gandhi, and find the perfect cause and moment to act in their lives. When applied to political candidates or leaders, this standard demands a consistency difficult to match, because whatever candidates’ strengths or flaws, they’ll inevitably disappoint us with some of their compromises or stands. The question is whether students will participate in choosing our elected leaders despite their reservations, or withdraw and let them be selected by others, including those very wealthy contributors whose undue influence so many of the students bemoan.
We can even encourage students to volunteer in campaigns despite mixed feelings, suggesting they make phone calls and knock on doors for their preferred candidates even if they don’t agree with their every stand. In fact, voicing their ambivalence while making clear the stakes may even give them more credibility, given how much of the population shares their doubts. On the practical side, we can give them academic credit for doing this, accompanied by whatever reflective follow-up we assign or negotiate.
Our challenge is to make our classrooms and campuses venues for thoughtful debate, reflection, and discussion, bending over backwards to ensure students of all political perspectives feel welcomed. To emphasize this last point, if we’re politically liberal and just a single student of ours is conservative, or vice versa, they need to feel encouraged — even if we have to go out of our way to help connect them with ways to participate consistent with their values. This election will affect students profoundly, as will future ones, so we need to model a climate where they recognize the stakes, argue the issues, yet respect those with differing opinions, refusing to cavalierly demonize them. The more we can do this, the more we can chip away at the toxic political culture of our time.
If students are politically disappointed, and many are, we might do well to stress the words of Czech dissident (and eventual president) Vaclav Havel, "Hope is not a prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart." Or as Jim Wallis of Sojourners puts it, “Hope is believing despite the evidence and then watching the evidence change.” That means hope can never be the property of a particular political leader, party, or campaign, though candidates can certainly tap into it. Rather, it resides in the actions of ordinary citizens, including, but not limited to showing up at the polls to exert what influence they can. We’d do well to use the podium of our classrooms to encourage student idealism, whatever its political direction, including when it breaches the boundaries of what’s deemed politically possible. We can emphasize that those we elect will make immensely consequential choices in our common name, and that whatever the political visions our students embrace, they’re most likely to achieve them by actively supporting the candidates closest to their stands, rather than withdrawing from the fray and allowing those whose values they most oppose to be elected by default. In other words, they can challenge the degradation of our politics without withdrawing from the process, or holding those who nonetheless participate to an impossibly perfect standard. As Meredith Segal stressed, working for change requires using all available tools, and taking advantage of every key moment to move toward the political goals they believe in.