What Is Gaming Addiction And What Are The Signs Your Could Have It?

Ellen Wallwork

A mum has urged the NHS to diagnose her 15-year-old son with gaming addiction, as she says he has become so consumed by online games that he has not been to school for a year.

Kendall Palmer, from north London, told The Telegraph she has fought for three years to have her son’s condition recognised and treated by the NHS.

Gaming addiction, also known as gaming disorder, was recognised as a mental health condition by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for the first time in January and UK Addiction and Treatment Centres (UKAT) have seen a 300% rise in the amount of admissions where gaming addiction is part of an adult’s reason for treatment since 2014.

With games like Fortnite and Minecraft only growing in popularity among teenagers, how can parents know if their child’s gaming has become a problem that needs addressing?

An increasing number of people are seeking help from UK Addiction and Treatment Centres (UKAT) for gaming addiction.

What is gaming disorder?

According to the WHO a person who has gaming disorder will have difficulty controlling their gaming - ie. they give increasing priority to gaming so that it takes precedence over other interests and daily activities. They will also continue to devote time to playing “despite the occurrence of negative consequences” - such as impact on school work or friendships.

“For gaming disorder to be diagnosed, the behaviour pattern must be of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning and would normally have been evident for at least 12 months,” the guidance states.

How can you tell if your child is addicted to gaming?

A teen developing an interest in gaming is not cause for alarm, as studies suggest that gaming disorder affects only a small proportion of people who engage in digital- or video-gaming activities. But parents should be vigilant for signs that gaming is becoming a compulsion.

“Gaming can be a very positive experience but like most things when it comes to the online world it’s a matter of proportion,” explains Internet Matters ambassador and psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos. “The problem arises when children and teenagers start to neglect other areas of their lives in order to play online games, or when the only way they can relax is by playing games - as over time a child may start to turn to video games as a way of coping with difficult life issues.”

Dr Papadopoulos says signs your child is becoming dependant on gaming include:

1. They are talking about their game incessantly, they play for hours on end and get defensive or even angry and aggressive when made to stop.

2. Their daily needs like food and sleep are being disrupted. Physical symptoms might even arise from spending too much time online such as dry or red eyes, soreness in the fingers, back or neck or complaints of headaches.

3. They appear preoccupied, depressed or lonely, as some games can be quite isolating. 

If you question the fact your teen is spending hours on end playing video games, you’re likely to be met with the response: “But everyone else is doing it”. So Dr Richard Grantham, technology addiction lead at Nightingale Hospital, also suggests talking to other parents to gauge if your child’s usage level is unusual.

“You want to be looking at your child’s friends and peers and seeing whether or not they are doing something similar,” he advises. “One of the things that can mark somebody who has a tendency to addiction, is that they will carry on when their friends or peers have stopped and they’re more likely to be playing with people they don’t know.”

Dr Graham adds that enthusiastic gamers may experience common symptoms of addiction, such as getting a “buzz” from playing and experiencing “withdrawal reactions”, such as feeling agitated, anxious, irritable or angry if they have to stop. But as long as they can control their behaviours, then it has not become gaming disorder.

What should you do if you suspect your child has gaming disorder?

If you have noticed your child developing the signs mentioned above, Dr Durrani, group psychiatrist at UKAT advises getting help immediately. “Early intervention in children could result in a healthy, moderated use of online games in the future, if the issue is tackled sooner rather than later,” he says.

But Dr Graham admits that knowing where to turn for help, can be difficult. “It has taken the NHS a very long time to recognise this may be an area that might affect somebody’s health and wellbeing,” he says. “So first of all, talk to other parents, to get that knowledge of what everyone else is doing, and perhaps your child’s school might be able to help.”

To seek professional help, start with your GP and ask if you can be referred to a specialist.

“Hopefully those services will be increasing on the NHS,” adds Dr Graham. “But specialist mental health services should be able to offer some help. Addiction is always complex and there may be all sorts of reasons for it in addition to the fact that these games are rewarding.”

Can you prevent a child developing gaming disorder?

Internet Matters offers the following advice to help prevent a child’s interest in gaming become a problem:

* Put parameters down when it comes to how long they’re allowed to play and discuss screen time limits together.

* Don’t allow kids to have tech in their rooms after lights out.
* Ensure they have alternative activities whether they be sports or clubs that help them to engage with their peers offline.
* If you still have concerns then seek the help of a professional counsellor.

Dr Graham also advises using the American Academy of Pediatrics ‘Family Media Plan’ to agree boundaries for your whole family to agree to in relation to gaming and time spent using technology. 

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