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Compulsive gaming is now a mental health issue, says WHO

The World Health Organisation said classifying "gaming disorder" as a separate addiction will help everyone to be more vigilant

T2 Online Newsdesk 19 June 2018, 3:15 PM
WHO also noted that the condition is very rare, with no more than up to 3 per cent of all gamers believed to be affected

WHO also noted that the condition is very rare, with no more than up to 3 per cent of all gamers believed to be affected Image: AP

Obsessive gamers know how to anticipate dangers in virtual worlds. The World Health Organization (WHO) says they now should be on guard for a danger in the real world — spending too much time playing video games.

In its latest revision to a disease classification manual, the United Nations (UN) health agency announced that compulsively playing video games now qualifies as a mental health condition. The statement confirmed the fears of some parents but led critics to warn that it may risk stigmatising too many young gamers.

WHO said classifying "gaming disorder" as a separate addiction will help governments, families and healthcare workers be more vigilant and prepared to identify the risks. The agency and other experts were quick to note that cases of the condition are still very rare, with no more than up to 3 per cent of all gamers believed to be affected.

Dr Shekhar Saxena, director of WHO's department for mental health and substance abuse, said the agency accepted the proposal that gaming disorder should be listed as a new problem based on scientific evidence, in addition to "the need and the demand for treatment in many parts of the world."

If (video games) are interfering with the expected functions of the person — whether it is studies, whether it's socialisation, whether it's work — then you need to be cautious and perhaps seek help. Dr Shekhar Saxena, director of WHO's department for mental health and substance abuse

Dr Joan Harvey, a spokesperson for the British Psychological Society, warned that the new designation might cause unnecessary concern among parents. "People need to understand this doesn't mean every child who spends hours in their room playing games is an addict, otherwise medics are going to be flooded with requests for help," she said.

Others welcomed WHO's new classification, saying it was critical to identify people hooked on video games quickly because they are usually teenagers or young adults who don't seek help themselves.

"We come across parents who are distraught, not only because they're seeing their child drop out of school, but because they're seeing an entire family structure fall apart," said Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, a spokesperson for behavioural addictions at Britain's Royal College of Psychiatrists. She was not connected to WHO's decision.

Bowden-Jones also said gaming addictions were usually best treated with psychological therapies but that some medicines might also work.

The American Psychiatric Association has not yet deemed gaming disorder to be a new mental health problem. In a 2013 statement, the association said it's "a condition warranting more clinical research and experience before it might be considered for inclusion" in its own diagnostic manual.

The group noted that much of the scientific literature about compulsive gamers is based on evidence from young men in Asia.

We come across parents who are distraught, not only because they're seeing their child drop out of school, but because they're seeing an entire family structure fall apart. Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, spokesperson for behavioural addictions at Britain's Royal College of Psychiatrists

"The studies suggest that when these individuals are engrossed in Internet games, certain pathways in their brains are triggered in the same direct and intense way that a drug addict's brain is affected by a particular substance. The gaming prompts a neurological response that influences feelings of pleasure and reward, and the result, in the extreme, is manifested as addictive behaviour," the association said in that statement.

Dr Mark Griffiths, who has been researching the concept of video gaming disorder for 30 years, said the new classification would help legitimise the problem and strengthen treatment strategies.

"Video gaming is like a non-financial kind of gambling from a psychological point of view. Gamblers use money as a way of keeping score whereas gamers use points," said Griffiths, a distinguished professor of behavioural addiction at Nottingham Trent University.

He guessed that the percentage of video game players with a compulsive problem was likely to be extremely small — much less than 1 per cent — and that many such people would likely have other underlying problems, like depression, bipolar disorder or autism.

Video gaming is like a non-financial kind of gambling from a psychological point of view. Dr Mark Griffiths, researcher on video gaming disorder

WHO's Saxena, however, estimated that 2 to 3 per cent of gamers might be affected.

Griffiths said playing video games, for the vast majority of people, is more about entertainment and novelty, citing the overwhelming popularity of games like Pokemon Go. "You have these short, obsessive bursts and yes, people are playing a lot, but it's not an addiction," he said.

Saxena said parents and friends of video game enthusiasts should still be mindful of a potentially harmful problem.

"Be on the lookout. If (video games) are interfering with the expected functions of the person — whether it is studies, whether it's socialization, whether it's work — then you need to be cautious and perhaps seek help," he said, noting that concerns should be raised if the gaming habit appears to be taking over.

(With inputs from AP)

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