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Author: Dr Dennis OugrinConsultant Child Psychiatrist

Although internet gaming addiction is not recognised as a formal diagnosis, yet, it is an area that has raised a great deal of interest for mental health professionals. For families who have a child or teenager who appears addicted to online gaming, it can often be difficult to find the right support and treatment.


What is a gaming addiction?

A gaming addiction, much like a gambling addiction, is a behavioural condition in which a person’s everyday life is significantly affected by a compulsive use of internet-based games or games consoles.

  • Behavioural addictions such as a gaming addiction are usually caused by several factors, but the main reason in the case of video games is that they are designed to be addictive.
  • Video games often offer rewards that may seem particularly hard (but nonetheless possible) to attain and both the anticipation leading up to receiving these ‘rewards’ as well as successfully completing a task, can lead to dopamine being released.
  • The body remembers the pleasurable feeling of playing the game, caused by the release of dopamine. To relive the positive feelings associated with this surge of dopamine, the individual will want to play the game again and again.
  • A vicious cycle is created, where the individual needs to play the game more and more in order to get the same ‘buzz’ or gratification as they initially did.
  • Many online games often have reward systems built into them, that can require players to build up points or skills in order to move on in the game. To achieve these points requires many hours of playing and thus, the player may find they spend more time than planned engaged in the game.

People with gaming addictions often have underlying problems and it is the case that mental health issues often cause gaming addictions rather than the other way around.


Gaming addiction: the risks

Most parents worry about their child or teenagers’ use of ‘screen’ time – we live in a society where many of our children may have access to the internet both at school, at home and on the move – so it’s not always possible to know exactly what your child is doing online or how much time they are spending playing online games.

Where once we worried about the types of games our children played (and much research has been carried out on the link between playing violent games and the impact it can have on your child’s behaviour1) we might now be more worried about the amount of time they spend gaming.

There are several risks associated with a gaming addiction – social, educational, emotional, behavioural and relational. In many ways, a gaming addiction does not differ from an addiction to a substance or gambling and therefore needs to be treated early so that the most effective outcome to be found.

Gaming addiction can also be a sign that your child has another mental health condition, like depression, Autism or anxiety. The gaming can be used, like any other addiction, to help the individual manage difficult feelings or to ‘escape’.

Left untreated, the underlying cause of the gaming addiction can also increase in severity, making it harder to find an effective treatment option.

1 Shokouhi-Moqhaddam, M., et al (2013)

5-10% children and teens are thought to have a gaming addiction


Symptoms of a gaming addiction

Children and teenagers are spending more and more time on the internet or in front of screens than ever before. As parents, it’s impossible to know how much is too much, although a good rule of thumb is to think about the impact it is having on other aspects of your child’s life. Internet usage should only be a small percentage of what they do every day.

Here are some of the common signs that your child may have a gaming addiction:

  • Being preoccupied with gaming
  • Talking about their games – unable to talk about anything else
  • Lack of interest in other activities they once enjoyed
  • ‘Needing’ more gaming time to be satisfied (known as ‘tolerance’ in addiction treatment)
  • Making excuses to have more gaming time
  • Lying or stealing to access gaming time/resources
  • Losing track of time whilst gaming
  • Sleeping less
  • Secretly gaming
  • Agitation or anger issues, particularly if stopped from gaming
  • Dreaming about games
  • Headaches, muscle aches, repetitive strain injury
  • Anxiety or depression if separated from their game
  • Poor personal hygiene

If you recognise 4 or more of the above symptoms in your child or teenager it may be worth seeking some help.

Friendly, professional, engaging to parents and children. The evidence of the doctor’s ability in our son’s subsequent improvement and his ownership of his own treatment.

Louisa, Kent


Treatment for gaming addiction

Gaming addiction is just that, an addiction, and should be treated as such. Addictions can seriously harm the way that a person lives their lives and the lives of others around them.

  1. Therapies like CBT can be highly effective at breaking the cycle of addiction - by learning to challenge some of the underlying beliefs the child or teenager has about gaming (such as the need to get to a certain level or become the ‘best’) your child can learn better ways of dealing with some of the difficult sensations they may be experiencing.
  2. Through CBT your child will also be able to understand the negative consequences of their gaming addiction and working with a therapist, will be able to build up their self-esteem and confidence to allow them to enjoy other activities again.
  3. The skills your child will learn through a therapy like CBT will last a life time and many can be applied to other areas in their life.

Read more about treating behavioural issues

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