Video Game Addiction is Officially a Mental Illness: Should You Worry?

“Five more minutes!”

This is the sound you hear every time you tell your child to get off the video games for the night. But you don’t hear it once. You hear it over and over again.

If it seems your child’s love of video games has taken over their life and you’re genuinely worried about his/her well-being, it could be headed towards what the World Health Organization (WHO) has officially classified as a mental health disorder: gaming disorder.

Simply enjoying video games and playing them off and on, or easily getting caught up in video games for hours on end but eventually turning off and returning to other activities may not signify gaming disorder or video game addiction, according to the WHO. It’s when the technology starts interfering with personal, family, or social health that it can officially become a “problem” that leads to other negative consequences.

Signs of video game addiction you can look for as a parent include:

  • Impaired control over gaming (e.g. onset, frequency, intensity, duration, termination, context)
  • Increasing priority given to gaming to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities
  • Continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences

“For gaming disorder to be diagnosed, the behavior pattern must be of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning and would normally have been evident for at least 12 months,” said the WHO.

How Can Video Game Addiction Affect Health?

When video game usage gets out of hand and becomes video game addiction, it means the person playing can’t stop even when continued playing causes negative consequences. This level of gaming can impact mental, emotional and physical health in a variety of ways, including:

  • Increased risk of obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and high cholesterol from a sedentary lifestyle and lack of exercise
  • Neglected social skills due to lack of engagement with others outside of an electronic environment
  • Problems with concentration and attention due to rapid movements and fast-paced action of video games
  • Developmental problems due to avoidance of tasks that promote learning, self-discovery, and personal development
  • Seizures and repetitive stress injuries from flickering graphics, lights and colors that may trigger episodes in epilepsy patients
  • Increased aggression or violent behavior due to the content of some types of video games

Just like other enjoyable activities like gambling, drinking alcohol, or even eating food can be completely safe when done in moderation, video game playing can be fun, enjoyable and safe when used in healthy doses. It’s when the gaming begins to take over one’s life that it can lead to harmful consequences and even be diagnosed as gaming disorder. 

As video games and technology become increasingly popular, they are proven to have a massive impact on cultural attitudes, psychological development, and lifestyle choices of both children and adults. However, it’s important to note that only a small number of people play video games to the extent they would be classified as having a gaming disorder or video game addiction as outlined by the WHO.

“Everybody who indulges in gaming from time to time doesn't have this disorder,” said Dr. Shekhar Saxena of the World Health Organization. “In fact, it's only a minority of people who game who will satisfy the strict criteria for gaming disorder.”

And many times, the WHO explained, those who are diagnosed with gaming disorder or video game addiction often have a co-occurring mental illness like depression, anxiety, ADHD, or even autism. 

“I’m not surprised the World Health Organization classified gaming disorder as a mental illness,” said Karen Russell, PCC-S, LCDC III, Site Director of Firelands Counseling & Recovery Services of Erie County. “I think that this has been a growing concern over the past several years and has typically come to the attention of professionals in the context of another disorder or concern that brings them to treatment.The challenge is determining which came first. Did the obsession to game cause other things in their life to take a backseat-social contact, emotional well-being, work, finances, intimate relationships, sometimes general hygiene and health behaviors? Or did the individual have an underlying disorder where they began to close off from everything and gaming became their only outlet? ”

It’s important to note, however, that the psychiatric profession in the United States does not yet officially recognize internet or video game addiction as stand-alone disorders - listing them instead as conditions for further study. This means that insurance coverage and gaming disorder-specific treatment may not be available in most behavioral health treatment facilities – yet. Some medical professionals are hopeful that this official recognition from the WHO will open the door for easier access to insurance coverage and treatment options.

At this time, Firelands Counseling & Recovery Services does not offer treatment for gaming disorder or video game addiction alone, but it does provide mental illness diagnosis and treatment for co-occurring conditions like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or others. Learn more about the mental illness treatments available at our 11 locations in seven counties today.