What Every Parent Needs to Know About Gaming Disorder

Updated: Mar. 04, 2021

If you've ever wondered whether Junior's Xbox habit was crossing the line, now you can find out for sure. Here's what the experts have to tell you about gaming disorder, and how to help your child recover.

It’s now possible to be addicted to video games

the man is playing game with gamepadDoraemon9572/Shutterstock

If your child is a Candy Crush Saga or Fortnite fanatic, he’s not alone. In fact, according to a study by the Entertainment Software Association, 65 percent of American households are home to someone who plays video games regularly. With gaming so easily accessible thanks to mobile devices and free-to-play games, it’s not surprising that gaming addiction is on the rise. Some experts even say video games can have the same addictive qualities as drugs or alcohol. Don’t miss these signs you might be addicted to your cell phone, too.

What is gaming disorder?

The World Health Organization just announced the addition of gaming disorder as a new illness. They say it’s a potentially serious mental health condition. Gaming disorder is defined by the patient giving increasing priority to online and offline gaming on any platform—mobile phones, tablets or console games—over other activities.

What else does it entail?

Simply playing a lot of video games doesn’t automatically mean someone has a problem. With this disorder, gaming takes precedence over nearly everything else. Kids with gaming disorder will play through meals, late into the night, and go days without bathing. Their relationships, school, and work will suffer, and they’ll lie about how much they’re playing. “As a result, they may lose valuable relationships,” says Scott Krakower, DO, assistant unit chief of psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital, in Glen Oaks, New York, who specializes in treating teens with addiction disorders. “They often develop a lack of motivation to complete tasks or set future goals.”

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How long does it have to be going on for?

The behavior has to be evident for at least 12 months. It can’t just be a few hours or few days. Since it’s a clinical condition, the clinical diagnosis of a gaming disorder can only be made by a psychiatrist or a psychologist. “Most other healthcare professionals will not have the knowledge or training to do it,” says Andrew J. Saxon, MD, a professor and director of the Addiction Psychiatry Residency Program at University of Washington School of Medicine.

How many people have this condition?

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Studies suggest that gaming disorder affects only a small percentage of people who participate in digital- or video-gaming activities. Experts say that no more than 3 percent of all gamers have an issue; some estimates as low as 1 percent. So, if your child plays games when he’s bored and looking for entertainment or likes to play games and is managing his life, he doesn’t have a problem. Even kids who spend hours in their room playing games may not be addicts. As long as the gameplay isn’t affecting his mental or physical health, it may not be problematic, says Dr. Krakower. But if your child is so hooked on gaming that he’s dropping out of school or your family structure is falling out, he may have an issue.

Why is it a problem?

A video game addiction is like being addicted to drugs. A study in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse on video games found that they impact the release of dopamine levels in ways similar to drugs like Ecstasy. Excessive gaming can also mask mental health issues: “Most people who actually meet the diagnostic criteria for gaming disorder also have other psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, depression, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” says Dr. Saxon. Video games give these users a social outlet so that they don’t have to leave their house. “Often, people become so comfortable playing a game that they don’t want to face reality,” says Dr. Krakower. “They’re avoiding situations that make them anxious.” It’s also a place to escape from stress, see measurable progress, and get instant gratification, says Cam Adair, founder of Game Quitters. “Gaming is a safe place to fail,” says Adair. “If you apply for a job and they say no, you hurt from rejection. But if you die in a game, you just press restart and try again.” On the other hand, learn about the video game that could fight depression.

How do I help my child?

“Try to identify other strengths that your child has and encourage him to pursue them,” says Dr. Krakower. It can be difficult to relate to the gaming world, especially if you’re not a gamer yourself. “Understand the importance of their online relationships,” says Adair. “Gamers who spend a lot of time online tend to have few friends outside the virtual world. Moving on from gaming is likely to change their social group.” Be supportive and encouraging as you help them overcome their addiction; avoid being confrontational and shaming. “Supporting them to not only find new group activities where they can make new friends but also helping them improve their social skills, will be helpful during this transition,” explains Adair. “Be patient; replacing gaming with new habits can take time,” he says.

Dr. Krakower warns not to be too patient. “At the same time, continue to push and nudge them along,” he says. Also, consider getting him evaluated by a psychiatrist or psychologist, says Dr. Saxon.

If your child doesn’t have a problem, you might want to check out these surprising health benefits of video games.

What are some online resources my child can check out?

A few online resources geared for gamers trying to fight their addiction include the below. Online resources should be used cautiously, though, says Dr. Saxon. “Just getting into the online environment could be a trigger for some people with internet gaming disorder,” he says. “If online resources are to be used, it might be best with some parental supervision.”

  • Game Quitters is a support community for video game addiction. Adair, the founder of the website, says that when he started gaming it was fine. Ultimately, though, it led him to drop out of high school. He pretended to have jobs playing video games up to 16 hours a day. He eventually wrote a suicide note. That’s when he realized he needed to make a change. Since he’s quit gaming, he says he’s happier than he’s ever been. “Today, I surf, DJ and travel the world speaking to schools and mental health professionals about video game addiction,” he says.
  • The On-line Gamers Anonymous Forum users share experiences, strengths and hope to help and support each other recover and heal from problems resulting from excessive game playing.

If your kid feels anxious about giving up games, check out some natural remedies for anxiety.