In the latest edition of its International Classification of Diseases (ICD), the World Health Organization (WHO) added a new form of addiction called “gaming disorder.”

WHO defines gaming disorder as a pattern of gaming behavior (including both digital gaming and video gaming) characterized by impaired control over gaming, increased priority given to gaming over other interests and priorities, and continued or escalated gaming despite negative consequences from the behavior.

To meet the ICD classification of gaming disorder, the behavior must be sufficient in severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, or occupational areas of functioning over a twelve-month period.

Gaming disorder is not currently identified as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), but is identified in the index as a condition warranting more clinical research before it is included as a formal disorder.

Is my child addicted to video games?

Video games can be a lot of fun and can even be used as a learning tool in some cases. For many kids and teens, video games are a way to connect with peers and blow off steam. Gaming becomes problematic for kids and teens when the behavior negatively affects their daily living. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does gaming affect my child’s ability to complete homework, get to school on time, or focus on educational needs?
  • Does gaming negatively impact my child’s relationships with parents, siblings, other family members, or peers?
  • Does my child experience uncontrollable outbursts when told to stop gaming, including physical aggression?
  • Does gaming take precedence over other areas in my child’s life?
  • Does gaming impede healthy habits such as eating, hygiene, and exercise?
  • Does gaming result in significant changes in mood?

A very small percentage of gamers actually suffer from gaming disorder as defined by WHO, but problematic gaming can negatively affect kids and teens and escalate over time.

Why is my child focused on gaming?

Gaming triggers the brain’s reward center, which releases dopamine, sometimes referred to as one of the “feel good hormones.” Dopamine is associated with feelings of euphoria, bliss, concentration, and motivation. When a video game gives a child a thrill by allowing them to reach a new high score or take down an opponent, dopamine can surge. This results in a temporary feeling of bliss.

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Video games can be enjoyable and engaging for kids and teens, so it should come as no surprise that they are a popular choice for filling downtime, but when the appeal goes beyond fun, it may be a cause for concern. For kids who struggle with self-confidence, success in gaming can boost feelings of self-worth. After a difficult day at school or struggling to connect with peers, playing a game well can trigger positive emotions. Gaming can also serve as an escape from reality. For a child who is socially isolated or living in a difficult family situation (divorce, separation, marital conflict), stepping into a virtual world can provide a feeling of relief from the stress of daily life.

All kids are different, and there are a variety of reasons why some kids are drawn to gaming. Getting to know your child’s specific interest in gaming is the single best way to determine whether or not gaming provides a healthy outlet or could become problematic.

Are there benefits to gaming?

Though parents are conditioned to worry about the potential pitfalls of gaming, there are some positives. One research review published in Frontiers found gamers show improvements in several types of attention, including sustained attention or selective attention. The brain regions involved in attention are also more efficient in gamers and require less activation to sustain attention on demanding tasks.

There is also evidence that video games can increase the size and efficiency of the regions of the brain responsible for visuospatial skills. These skills help us complete everyday tasks like estimating the distance between two objects (parking a car) or mentally rotating objects (imagining the place someone mentions when giving directions.)

For kids who struggle to enter groups or initiate conversations, video games can be a fun way to connect with a peer. It should be noted, however, that gaming does not replace social skills development. It’s one thing to use gaming to spark a connection over a shared activity, but it’s problematic when kids can only connect to other kids through gaming.

Are some kids more susceptible to problematic gaming than others?

While classifying gaming disorder as a behavioral addiction will no doubt help some people access the resources they need, it also runs the risk of pathologizing a normal behavior. It’s important to evaluate each specific case carefully to determine whether or not gaming falls into the range of normal age-related behavior, problematic behavior that requires some help, or an addiction that requires treatment.

There is some evidence that associates video game addiction with depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).[ii] Whether or not there is a cause-and-effect relationship, however, remains unclear. Children and adolescents already diagnosed with these disorders might seek out gaming to cope with emotions, connect with others, or feel successful.

What to do if you think your child is addicted to gaming:

Gaming can trigger feelings of irritability in some kids. It can also lead to power struggles, meltdowns, and sneaky behavior. While all of these behaviors can be problematic within families, they don’t necessarily meet the ICD-11 criterion for gaming disorder. Regardless, if gaming negatively impacts your family, it’s time to seek outside help.

Take these steps to determine what your family needs to restore a healthy emotional balance:

  • Evaluation from your child’s pediatrician: It’s always a good idea to check in with your primary care physician for a complete checkup as a first step.
  • Evaluation from a licensed mental health practitioner. Results from this assessment will help you and your therapist determine a treatment plan. This might include individual therapy (including cognitive behavioral therapy), family therapy, and/or group therapy.
  • Parenting coach or therapist. If gaming is negatively impacting the family, it can be useful for parents to seek help from a therapist who specializes in parenting to learn how to establish healthy boundaries around technology and gaming, work through power struggles and meltdowns from a positive perspective, and help the child cope with emotions and other factors that contribute to the gaming behavior.
  • Addiction treatment. If it is determined that a child has a true gaming disorder, treatment with an addiction specialist is required.

Healthy levels of gaming can quietly become problematic if left unchecked. When families get into to the habit of talking about gaming, reviewing and helping one another adhere to family boundaries related to technology and gaming, and prioritizing healthy habits, it’s possible to create healthy gaming habits that are fun for the whole family.

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Last Updated: Aug 28, 2018