Video game addiction is a mental health disorder, WHO says, but psychiatrists don't agree

Mike Snider


Published 7:54 p.m. UTC Jun 18, 2018

The World Health Organization on Monday classified “gaming disorder” as a diagnosable condition, giving mental health professionals a basis for setting up treatment programs for the addictive behavior. But it was almost immediately contested by a leading professional group. 

WHO will include “gaming disorder” in the 11th edition of its International Classification of Diseases, which is due out this month and is used by professionals across the globe to diagnose and classify conditions. It will describe the disorder as “impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”

But some mental health professionals disagree. The American Psychiatric Association has not found “sufficient evidence” to consider gaming addiction as a “unique mental disorder” it said Monday.

Since WHO began considering the condition two years ago, “there was a fairly widespread concern that this is a diagnosis that doesn’t really have a very solid research foundation,” said Christopher Ferguson, a psychologist and media researcher at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla.

The symptoms are not clear-cut and there’s not designated treatment for the WHO diagnosis, he said.

The WHO’s “gaming disorder” diagnosis would apply to gamers with fractured connections to friends and family and who exhibit impaired academics and indifference toward areas of life outside gaming for at least 12 months.

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Research shows that only a small percentage of people across the world deal with this disorder, according to WHO. But the number suffering from this mental health condition is enough to study the behavioral pattern and create a treatment program, the organization says.

From 0.3 percent to 1 percent of the general population might qualify for a potential acute diagnosis of “internet gaming disorder,” according to a study published in the November 2016 American Journal of Psychiatry and referenced on the American Psychiatric Association blog in May 2017.

The APA included the disorder in the appendix of the 2014 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to stimulate research into the disorder. The organization “recognized internet gaming disorder in the section recommending conditions for further research, along with caffeine use disorder and other conditions,” it said in its statement Monday.

Earlier this year, The Society for Media Psychology and Technology, a division of the American Psychological Association released a policy statement stating concern about the WHO’s proposal: “We are concerned that the current research base is not sufficient for this disorder and that this disorder may be more a  product of moral panic than good science.”

For parents concerned about their child, teen or young adult, some more practical advice involves assessing their kids’ lifestyle and health. Are they giving up their friends or other hobbies for games? 

Other signs of concern: Are kids not sleeping or having health problems? “Sometimes gaming overuse can be a symptom that something is going wrong for the child,” said Ferguson, who also co-authored Moral Combat: Why the War on Video Games is Wrong with Patrick Markey. “The likelihood is the problem is bigger than gaming and gaming didn’t cause it.” 

Medical professionals are more focused on the reason causing the behavior than the behavior of playing video games itself, said Heather Senior Monroe, director of program development at Newport Academy, which has treatment centers for teens struggling with mental health issues in California, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. “The main characteristics are very similar to substance abuse disorder and gambling,” she said.

“The behavior is like any other self harming behavior — a way to escape reality,” Monroe said. “The treatment is then about why. Why does that person want to escape their reality so much?”

The answer: depression and anxiety, usually, Monroe said.

As interest in online games has risen internationally, there have been extreme cases of death tied to marathon video game sessions. Last year, a 35-year-old Virginia Beach man died after a 24-hour marathon session of the World of Tanks video game, broadcast on video game streaming service Twitch.

In 2002, a South Korean man was believed to be the first person to die from online game binge-playing after playing for 86 hours. Three years later, another South Korean man died in an internet cafe.

China, too, has been hit with deaths from addictive online game behavior with separate deaths in 2007 and 2011. More recently, in 2015, a man died in a Shanghai internet cafe after playing World of Warcraft for 19 consecutive hours.

Other deaths connected to marathon game sessions in the last six years have occurred in Taiwan, Russia and the U.K.

To address the issue, South Korea in 2011 passed a law prohibiting those under 16 from playing online games between midnight and 6 a.m. However in 2014, the country amended the law, allowing parents to lift the ban on their children. 

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