Dr. Deb's Mental Health Vitamin: When video games become an addiction

Dr. Deb Wade

By Dr. Deb Wade
GCU Vice President, Counseling and Psychological Services

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the handbook used by health care professionals in the United States and much of the world as the authoritative guide to the diagnosis of mental disorders.

DSM contains descriptions, symptoms and other criteria for diagnosing mental disorders. The manual, now in its fifth edition, is the go-to for clinicians when they are trying to determine diagnosis and treatment of a disorder.

Many folks have wondered: Is it possible for one to become truly addicted to electronics – specifically, to gaming?

We’ve all witnessed this scenario (and others that are similar):

A family is out to eat at a restaurant, and the children are all “plugged into” video games in order to keep them occupied. Taken to a more disturbing degree is the situation where parents awaken in the middle of the night only to find their teenage child so involved in gaming on the computer that s/he cannot seem to stop.

Recently, I treated a college student who had just completed his freshman year at a prominent Texas university. His mother was concerned because, though he had been a straight-A student in high school, he had failed most of his classes for both the fall and spring semester.

Closer inspection revealed that he had become so invested and entrenched in gaming (with friends near and far) that he could not seem to find a balance with sleeping, eating, going to class and having social time.

Rather, he had lost a lot of weight, was quite unkempt in his appearance and had become careless and disorganized in all facets of his life. They both asked, “Is this an addiction?”  

Addiction is characterized by an inability to consistently abstain, an impairment in behavioral control, a persistent craving, a diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response.

Though our DSM-V has stopped short of calling “gaming addiction” an “official” disorder, the American Psychological Association is encouraging further research for its inclusion in future editions. The World Health Organization, however, IS treating gaming as an addiction when at least five of the following factors are present, within the time span of one year:

  • Preoccupation or obsession with internet games
  • Withdrawal symptoms when NOT playing internet games
  • A buildup of tolerance – more and more time is devoted to playing games
  • A failure to stop or curb playing internet games, when attempts have been taken
  • A loss of interest in other life activities, such as other hobbies
  • The continued overuse of internet games, even with the knowledge of how it could be negatively impacting one’s life
  • Lying to others about the frequency or amount of game usage
  • Continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences
  • Attempts to relieve guilt or anxiety while “escaping” into internet games
  • Relationships are at risk because of the intensity of time and energy placed on internet games

In other words, when gaming begins to greatly interfere with normal, everyday tasks, behaviors and relationships, it would be safe to say that gaming controls you – you don’t control it.

It is a truth that anyone can become absorbed with something fun or challenging at the expense of daily tasks – for a short period of time. BUT, when it occurs over the span of a year and the intensity is the same or escalating, it obviously is interfering with life.

Most of the time, gaming can be a fun hobby one plays with friends and family. BUT, there is a corner that is turned which takes it from fun to life-impacting. At that juncture, behavior therapy can be a godsend and can help the addicted one back to a life of balance and healthiness.

If you find yourself or a loved one going down a similar, dangerous path of extremes, please take a timeout to examine. On the other hand, when kept in balance, there are certainly cognitive benefits to gaming:

  • Improves coordination  
  • Improves problem-solving skills
  • Enhances memory
  • Improves attention and concentration
  • Is a great source of learning
  • Improves the brain’s speed
  • Enhances multitasking skills
  • Improves social skills

The key, of course, is balance.

The young man above? After some consistent, intense therapy, he was able to overcome the addictive nature of his habit. Though he discovered that the healing only came from complete abstinence, he does feel content with his life.

He is back in school, developing relationships with those around him, joining in group activities and finding himself laughing at his choices for entertainment. And his last grade report? He once again was studying and making A’s and B’s! Help IS available!

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Bible Verse

"(Jesus) was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put Him to death by nailing Him to the cross." (Acts 2:23)

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