The WHO Recognizes Gaming Dependency as a Disorder


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The popularity of online games has steadily grown in recent years, and shows no signs of stopping. According to a study released by Electronic Entertainment Design and Research, roughly 67% of Americans, or a staggering 211 million people, play video games including smartphone games, computer games and massive multiplayer online role playing games such as the infamous Fortnite. Regular gaming has undeniably cemented itself in the daily routines of millions of people, with an increasing trend of dependency emerging.

In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized gaming dependency as a disorder for the first time. Despite the potential educational, medical and entertainment benefits that games offer, enough concerns are being raised to warrant significant research into the dependency observed in gamers both young and old. Because video games are readily available on multiple platforms any time of day or night, they present unique risks for compulsive or addictive behavior.   These include easy access, gambling-like mechanics, virtual immersion and mainstream social norms.

What is gaming disorder?

The American Psychiatric Association characterizes gaming disorder by impaired control and increasing priority given to gaming over other activities, interests and daily activities along with the escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences. This pattern of persistent and recurring behavior in turn results in the impairment of personal, family, social, educational and occupational activities.

What are the signs and symptoms of gaming disorder?

A person with gaming disorder will begin to show a lack of control over their gaming habits, the prioritizing of gaming over other interests and continued gaming despite negative effects. Gaming disorder researcher Dr. Han Doug-hyun lists five warning signs of gaming or internet addiction including disrupted regular life pattern, the cessation of work or school, the increasing need for more play time, withdrawal symptoms such as irritability and emotional dysregulation, and cravings for the digital world. Often, this problematic media use is connected to underlying diagnoses from ADHD and anxiety to depression and mood disorders, possibly acting in conjunction to amplify the risk of dependency. In these cases, gaming is used to relieve negative moods, guilt or hopelessness, resulting in the inability to reduce playing. Experiencing five or more of these symptoms within a year would constitute a diagnosis of internet gaming disorder, according to the Journal of Current Addiction Reports.

What are common negative effects of dependency?

In an increasingly digitalized world, the negative effects of excessive screen time can be damaging to both physical and mental health. The Mayo Clinic reports that the fight-flight state of hyperarousal is affected by gaming dependency, often resulting in chronic stress, difficulties in paying attention, managing emotions, controlling impulses, following directions and tolerating frustration. Additionally, deficits in the expression of compassion, creativity and interest in learning can be seen. The AMA Journal of Ethics notes the addictive nature of gaming disorder has been seen to result in an overall increase in aggressive behavior, particularly during withdrawal periods, while the American Addiction Centers reports key concerns of a sedentary lifestyle, a lack of social engagement, problems with concentration and the use of gaming as an escape mechanism from developmental tasks.

What are my treatment options?

The study and treatment of gaming disorder are still in development with more research pouring in every day for this relatively new classification. If you are concerned for yourself or a loved one about the preoccupation or dependency with gaming, contact your health care provider or mental health professional. Effective treatment begins with a comprehensive bio-psycho-social evaluation, especially to assess for mental health disorders that might have preceded, co-occurred with, or resulted from, a compulsive gaming struggle.  As with other addiction treatments, a combination of treatment methods is proven most successful. Proposed treatment models include psychoeducation, intrapersonal building of self-esteem, interpersonal interaction education, family intervention and therapy, the development of healthy alternative habits for a holistic approach, the treatment of co-occurring conditions including anxiety and depression and addiction treatment to improve the control of cravings and learn coping skills. Each approach is personalized by case – talk to your health provider to find the best course of treatment for you or your loved one.  

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