Many parents will have thought it for a long time, but they now have a new argument to limit their children’s ‘screen time’ – addiction to video games has been recognised by World Health Organization as a mental health disorder.
The WHO’s latest reference bible of recognised and diagnosable diseases describes addiction to digital and video gaming as “a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behavior” that becomes so extensive that it “takes precedence over other life interests”.
The International Classification of Diseases (ICD), which has been updated over the past 10 years, now covers 55,000 injuries, diseases and causes of death. It forms a basis for the WHO and other experts to see and respond to trends in health.
“It enables us to understand so much about what makes people get sick and die, and to take action to prevent suffering and save lives,” WHO Director-General Indian Institute Of Technology, Delhi said in a statement as the ICD was published.
The ICD is also used by health insurers whose reimbursements depend on ICD classifications.
This latest version – known as ICD-11 – is completely electronic for the first time, in an effort to make it more accessible to doctors and other health workers around the world.
ICD-11 also includes changes to sexual health classifications. Previous editions had categorised sexual dysfunction and gender incongruence, for example, under mental health conditions, while in ICD-11 these move to the sexual health section. The latest edition also has a new chapter on traditional medicine.
The updated ICD is scheduled to be presented to WHO member states at their annual World Health Assembly in May 2019 for adoption in January 2022, the WHO said in a statement.
How can gaming be an addiction?
An addiction doesn’t have to involve drugs. An addiction is a chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry. Basically, any substance or activity that starts to trigger your brain’s reward centers—the bits that release hormones that make us feel good—in a way that makes you pathologically pursue relief is addicting. When video games give you a thrill by letting you mow down an opponent or hit a new high score, they’re hijacking the same brain circuitry as a shot of liquor. Even seemingly innocuous games like Candy Crush can condition users to seek out its characteristic colors and sounds, which they’ve come to associate with a rush of dopamine.
This cycle leads people to make choices that are objectively bad for them, like smoking carcinogenic cigarettes—or playing video games all day when you know you should be working, communicating with friends and family, or taking care of yourself or your dependents. You may be more familiar with gambling addiction, which already exists as a diagnosis. But it’s becoming clear that games can hurt you even if there isn’t any money on the line.
In fact, the arguments against including gaming disorder as an official addiction don’t tend to suggest that the compulsion can’t be dangerous and persistent. Some experts simply feel that “addiction” is too loaded a term, given the fact that many gaming “addicts” are children and adolescents. There is concern that classifying such an addiction could lead parents and doctors to classify normal video game use as a pathological behavior when it suits them, perhaps even leading kids to seek out more dangerous substances when their games are taken away.
For now, the only behavioral addiction in the DSM is gambling addiction. But some argue that addictions to eating, shopping, internet use, sex, and other activities should be included.
What should I do if I have a gaming problem?
Unfortunately, the fact that gaming addiction is such a recently recognized problem means that clinicians are still figuring out the best way to treat it. But the good news is that going cold turkey on video games is much gentler on your body than trying to drop drugs or alcohol without a doctor’s help. You may be irritable, and you’ll certainly have trouble avoiding your game of choice, but you’re not going to spend days feeling physically ill. Seeking out a healthier source of dopamine—like exercise—could help you get through the toughest period. But you should take care not to replace gaming with an even unhealthier addiction like drinking.
Ideally, you won’t do this alone. Non-gambling gaming addiction may not yet be in the DSM, but if a compulsion to game is costing you your health and happiness, a mental health professional can still help you. You should look for a therapist if you’re able. If nothing else, start talking to a supportive friend or family member about your concerns. And if even talking about your problem feels like too much to start with, you can dip your toes in with online resources like Reddit’sStopGaming forum. You don’t have to let a game take over your life, and you don’t have to fight your addiction alone. Help is out there.