The World Health Organization has classified compulsive game playing as a mental health condition.
An addiction to playing video or online games, now an official medical diagnosis called gaming disorder, is calling attention to the challenges some youth face in curtailing their gaming habits.
The World Health Organization recently added gaming disorder as a medical diagnosis, allowing doctors for the first time to diagnose it as a specific addiction, prescribe treatment and ask health insurance to pay for it.
“It is a real addiction,” said Nathan Krueger, 20, a gamer and college student in Davenport.
Some children with gaming disorder can have grades drop, lose interest in activities they previously enjoyed or withdraw from friends or family in order to spend more time gaming.
In adults, gaming addictions can progress to the point of losing jobs or marriages because of an inability to stop gaming.
“This one YouTuber would say his wife divorced him because his main focus was on video games, it was all he would do. I thought that was pretty crazy,” Krueger said. “I thought, put down the controller and focus on your relationship. But he couldn’t.”
How many are addicted to gaming?
Iowa State psychology professor Douglas Gentile said up to 10 percent of youth may be addicted to gaming.
Potentially, that’s 3 million children in the United States.
“Most kids don’t have a problem,” Gentile said. “But given how prevalent gaming is, even if it’s a small percentage that do have a problem, it’s still a lot of kids.”
Gentile stressed that it’s not the time spent playing video games that reflects an addiction, but whether they are continuing to game despite increasingly negative effects on their life.
Symptoms typically worsen over the course of a year.
For example, there may be a drop in grades, withdrawal from friends or family, a lack of interest in areas the person used to enjoy, or lying about video game use.
In addition, youth might game without parents’ knowledge; Gentile has heard of children falling asleep at their regular bed time only to wake up at 2 a.m. and game through the early morning.
As with other addictions, gaming disorder can progress. In extreme examples, addicts may forgo meals or even wear diapers so they can continue gaming, he said.
Why should parents set game limits?
As a teen, Krueger said he’d play games four or so hours a night and longer on weekends. It was sometimes a fight with his mom to turn off the console, and she’d unplug it and take the cord.
Doctors recommend limiting children’s screen time to two hours a day.
Now 20, Krueger is thankful for the limits his mom did impose — because he would have gamed even more.
“I would have missed hanging out with friends,” he said.
In recent years he has drastically cut back on gaming because of college — he’s majoring in public relations and working as a restaurant server — although he still plays.
“It’s a good time to decompress,” he said. “To catch up with my buddies and focus on something else besides school or work, or whatever is stressing me out.”
Despite being a passionate gamer since he was 10, Krueger is flabbergasted by how frequently he see families come into the restaurant and give their children online games to keep them occupied.
He now worries about the amount of screen time they have.
What should parents watch for?
According to the World Health Organization, a person with gaming disorder may experience:
- Feeling of a loss of control over gaming
- Prioritizing gaming over other activities and letting it take precedence over their interests and daily activities
- Increasing use of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.
“It’s on their mind all the time, and they have withdrawal symptoms when the games are taken away,” said Blank Children’s Hospital pediatrician Dr. Amy Shriver. “They develop a tolerance, which means they need more gaming to feel good.”
The first step is monitoring how much time children are spending on games and the content of the games, such as if it is developmentally appropriate and whether they’re coming into contact with strangers.
If parents become concerned about gaming disorder, they should talk to their pediatrician or family doctor.
Gentile began studying the effects of video games in 1999 and said he had doubts when he first heard from parents who thought their child was addicted to video games.
“I didn’t believe it could be a real problem back then, but the more I studied it, the more I realized that in some kids, it can rise” to an addiction, he said. “That’s what the data keeps showing.”
What should parents do if they are concerned?
There’s scant research on gaming disorder treatment, but the WHO diagnosis is expected to change that.
“Now that we see it as a legitimate problem,we can do the studies to see what type of treatment is most effective,” Gentile said.
Shriver said there are treatment options, such as:
- Cognitive behavior therapy, a common type of talk therapy with a mental health counselor
- Family therapy, in which family members work with a professional to improve communication and resolve conflicts
- Motivational interviewing, which helps parents and families set goals and keep monitoring the progress on those goals
In addition, families might seek out support groups — both for the gaming addiction and for those impacted by their addiction.
In 2002, Online Gamers Anonymous was founded as an self-help group that follows the same 12 steps of recovery by Alcoholics Anonymous.
A support group for family and friends who are concerned about a loved one’s gaming, similar to how Alcoholics Anonymous helps individuals concerned about someone’s drinking, is also available. (Learn more about both groups at olganon.org.)
“Having a support group is always a good idea and treating it like an addiction is the best strategy that we know of,” Shriver said.
The World Health Organization says that compulsively playing video games now qualifies as a new mental health condition, in a move that some critics warn may risk stigmatizing too many young players. (June 18)
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