It’s easy to see why people enjoy playing video games. But while high-tech games provide a sometimes-needed escape from reality, scientists at the World Health Organization have identified a new addiction called gaming disorder, which can negatively impact mental health.
Ever since video games were invented, experts have debated whether or not they are a healthy activity for kids. While some decry the sedentary nature of video games, others advocate that they are a fun way for kids to learn problem-solving and hone their fine motor skills. Some parents worry that video games encourage violent or anti-social behaviors, while other parents see gaming as a way to help their active kids relax and sit still.
Although there’s a lot of gray area between these opposing viewpoints, one thing is for sure: Video games can have an impact on mental health. Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) added a new condition called “gaming disorder.” Gaming disorder is when playing video, computer or cell phone games results in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning.
How Can Video Games Become an Addiction?
Drugs and alcohol may come to mind when you hear the word addiction. However, substances aren’t the only things to which people can become addicted. Addiction is defined as a chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. That means that anything that triggers a person’s reward centers in the brain has the potential to cause addiction. The reward centers in the brain release chemicals that make us feel good; these positive feelings may prompt us to repeat the action over and over again.
Video games are designed to interfere with the brain’s reward and motivation centers, which makes them potentially addicting. If playing video games causes your child to feel good, they may want to play video games more often and for longer durations of time in order to maintain that satisfied feeling. If you notice an increase in your child’s intensity, duration or frequency of video game play, there may be cause for concern.
Symptoms of Gaming Disorder
So how do you know if your child or loved one has a gaming addiction? The WHO lists the following behaviors as characteristics of gaming disorder:
- Impaired control over the onset, frequency, intensity, duration, termination or context of gaming.
- Increasing priority given to gaming to the extent that it takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities.
- The continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.
That means that if your child plays video, computer or cell phone games for extended amounts of time, and shows little interest in other activities, it’s time to intervene. If video games are interfering with your child’s normal daily activities like meal times, schoolwork, or social relationships, this may be a sign of gaming disorder.
How to Avoid Gaming Disorder
Video games can be part of a healthy childhood if enjoyed in moderation. Like any form of screen time, parents and guardians should set time limits on how long children are allowed to play video games. It’s also imperative to monitor your child to ensure they don’t exceed the time limit you’ve agreed upon. Finally, pay attention to the content of the game to ensure that it’s age-appropriate for your child.