Inside the on-the-rise phenomenon of gaming addiction — and how to prevent your kids from getting hooked.
By Susan Peck
The scene has become all too familiar. Kids are immersed in the glowing screens of their iPads, cellphones, game consoles and computers. But are the illuminated faces of these kids just taking in harmless fun, or are they being enticed into an unhealthy condition known as internet gaming addiction?
Psychologist and addiction expert Dr. Nicolas Kardaras coined the term “glow kids,” referring to the mesmerized children with faces glowing from blue-hued digital screens. He has worked in developing clinical protocols involving gaming addiction at Harvard Medical School’s Division of Addiction and believes today’s overuse of screen technology correlates with disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, drug or alcohol abuse, anxiety, depression, increased aggression, and in extreme cases, even psychosis.
As gaming addiction becomes an increasingly important topic of conversation, concerned parents are looking for information and practical tips regarding their children’s daily screen time.
In 2018, the World Health Organization added gaming disorder to the latest edition of the International Classification of Diseases, and the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) — the gold standard for diagnosing mental disorders — places it in section III, warranting more research and testing for final placement.
According to WHO, an individual with the disorder lets playing video games “take precedence over other life interests and daily activities…despite the occurrence of negative consequences.” Parents, WHO warns, should keep an eye on any child who neglects relationships, school work, exercise, personal hygiene and job responsibilities, in favor of playing games.
To be clear, not everyone who plays video games has a problem. According to a 2017 paper in the journal Pediatrics, about 90% of kids and teens in the U.S. play video games, and approximately 9% of them show signs of addiction.
Breaking the Trance
“Are we still in the game?”
Dr. Kardaras says a confused 16-year-old client who was a video game addict asked him that question while having an episode of video game-induced delusions. “It’s exchanges like that between mental health professionals and their patients that have led to eye-opening explorations into the neurological impact of screens on kids,” says Kardaras, who’s based in Hawaii.
“Recent brain imaging studies conclusively show that excessive screen exposure can neurologically damage a young person’s developing brain in the same way that cocaine addiction can,” Kardaras says.
Locally, Dr. David Rosenberg, chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Wayne State University and Psychiatrist in Chief for the DMC, along with his team, is conducting research that focuses on excessive online gaming and its effect on brain activity.
Rosenberg says their brain function testing involves 7 hours of clinical and genetic tests as well as magnetic resonance imaging. “The MRIs of the gaming participants support the growing evidence that the video games are programmed to hijack the brain’s reward center and other key brain circuits like the brain conductor and processing centers,” Rosenberg says. “The games are hyper-arousing and raise dopamine levels — the feel-good neurotransmitter most involved in the addiction dynamic — and they begin to shrink the frontal cortex, shutting down portions of the brain that affect memory, attention, decision making and impulsivity.”
Nineteen-year-old Christopher T., a Royal Oak resident who didn’t want to share his last name for privacy, has been playing video games heavily for the past 10 years. “The games I play have an addiction that keeps you coming back for more,” he says. “I like the social part of it because it’s interactive and I can talk and play with other friends, but it’s easy to get sucked into the game. I can be in any world I want whether it’s a sports game, or more action like Fortnite, and then sometimes I don’t want to do anything else.” Psychologists call this experience “flow” — the video games are highly interactive and adaptive, and often induce a sense of psychological flow in players, or a sense of effortless concentration that makes time fly.
The good news is that even though technology can change the brain, any negative effects can be completely reversed. Experts suggest beginning a digital detox, and for extreme situations, there are rehabilitation programs and therapists to assist in gaming cessation. Methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy, group counseling or even 12-step work for cyber addiction, may have positive effects.
Rosenberg adds that “parenthood is not a democracy,” and proactive prevention, including proper limits, can protect your child from gaming addiction.
“We recommend that adolescents spend no more than 1 or 2 hours per day on the internet,” Rosenberg suggests. “Younger children should spend even less, with close monitoring.”
To keep your glow kid’s screen time under control: Set time limits, keep technology out of the bedroom and increase exercise and experiential activities — especially those involving nature, as those have proven to be extremely effective to change gaming behavior.
How to Tell if You Have a Gaming Problem
You may have a problem if you have five or more of these signs in one year, according to the DSM-5:
• Thinking about gaming all or a lot of the time
• Feeling bad when you can’t play
• Needing to spend more and more time playing to feel good
• Not being able to quit or even play less
• Not wanting to do other things that you used to like
• Having problems at work, school or home because of your gaming
• Playing despite these problems
• Lying to people close to you about how much time you spend playing
• Using gaming to ease bad moods and feelings