The excessive use of videogames can create dependency. Not only parents and educators are worried about what, for many young people, is becoming more than just an obsession; the World Health Organization has added “gaming disorder” to the eleventh edition of the diagnostic manual of the International Classification Diseases (ICD).

Cited under the heading “Disorders due to addictive behaviours”, the compulsive use of video games is considered like other gambling disorders, like betting and poker, alongside already classified addictions such as drugs and alcohol. The new ICD will be published in mid-2018 (more than 20 years after the previous one), but on the WHO website the document has already been available since January.

What is gaming disorder?

The WHO’s draft describes it as:

“a pattern of gaming behavior ('digital-gaming' or 'video-gaming') characterized by 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.”

And furthermore:

“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.”

The ICD is the basis for the identification of health trends and statistics at the global level. At the same time it serves as an international standard for the reporting of diseases and health conditions, a sort of reference point used by doctors and researchers all over the world to diagnose and classify patients' conditions.

The decision to include the gaming disorder in the ICD-11 is based on in-depth study of the evidence available worldwide and is the result of the consensus of experts from various disciplines involved in that field.

This move comes after years of analysis of the danger of excessive technological gaming, both online and offline, regardless of the device used (PC, console, tablet, smartphone). Numerous medical, sociological, psychological and educational studies have been carried out on the use and abuse of “connection” for play purposes, by adolescents and adults, but also by children.

A couple of years ago research  published by JAMA Pediatrics (a journal of the American Medical Association) showed that electronic games in which the aim is to kill or raid make children unable to comprehend the consequences of violence. In 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics had already noted the dangers of new media when exposure to, and use of new technologies by children and adolescents became excessive.

A call for caution without alarmism

The research, however, also shows that the disorder affects only a small percentage of people who engage in digital gaming or videogames. But they somehow invite those who use it to pay greater attention to the amount of time that is spent playing, in particular when this involves the exclusion of other daily activities, or changes in physical and psychological health are noticed in social relations that could be attributed directly to their way of playing.

So, no alarm, but a word of attention – caution – to the players. And for doctors, especially those already involved in the field, a further step forward in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of the disorder, which could benefit from a shared approach, from the exchange of data and statistics, from the elaboration of study programs and a wide-range research.

To cause concern, the element of addiction, of excess, the desire to play at all costs must be present. There is a kind of irrepressible instinct which hits many who end up literally captured by the game, losing contact with reality. This is seen in kids, like everyone who plays for hours and hours, even late at night, looking for the latest and most technically sophisticated videogame.

Some good advice

According to some, social withdrawal is often caused by overbearing parents who prefer not to let their children go out, because of their own laziness and to also keep their kids under control, or for fear of what's out there. In the case of younger children, videogames play the role of baby-sitter, and even end up replacing television. For the older ones, however, the “Web” often becomes the only space for socializing, and the virtual multimedia game replaces real life. 

The invitation addressed to parents, then, is to spend more time with their children. It has been observed that dependence on videogames tends to develops in those with already fragile personalities and living in situations of hardship. This is often due to a real absence of parents, if not actual, at least perceived — as lack of sharing, the absence of attention.

This is what happens in the most extreme cases, for example in Japan, where there is a very high number of hikikomori, adolescents who reject the world and stay behind closed doors. They avoid any contact with surrounding reality and stay glued to the internet and often to video games, a phenomenon we have already talked about in our portal.

The challenge is not to forbid but to educate

Videogames should not be demonized, but rather controlled . They should come in a box stamped with the phrase, “Handle with care”, the care that is needed in all educational and training processes, in the various stages of development of the person and his character. 

In fact, the videogame is able to offer numerous opportunities. The new studies enable a new analysis of these games that takes into account both their potential and dangers. They can help educators and parents to act as cultural mediators of a process that is playful but also educational at an moderate and conscious level of use, according to the age of the player/user of a technology that has become part of our daily life.

Both the studies and the clinical analysis prove that the risk of going from use to the abuse of videogames also depends on the relationship that young people establish with their peers and with adults in authoritative positions. “Disorder” sets in when children move away from conscious control by their parents; or when, among older users in a state of dissatisfaction or discomfort with their lives, the game goes from being a moment of leisure to an escape from reality.

Lucrezia Scotellaro writes for Family and Media. The above article is an edited and shorter version of the original, which can be read in its entirety at Family and Media