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Are your kids addicted to video games? Here's what to look for

Chicago Tribune - 6/19/2018

June 19--If your kids are spending their summer days playing Fortnite, you might be wondering what to make of the recent World Health Organization announcement, which designated compulsive video gaming as a mental health condition. Calling it "gaming disorder," the organization noted that classifying it separately will help identify risks and prepare care.

WHO said the disorder is characterized by prioritizing gaming over other activities and escalating gaming despite negative consequences. For it to be diagnosed, the behavior must significantly impair life aspects like family, social or educational areas for at least 12 months.

Dr. Leonard Jason, a psychology professor at DePaul University who has studied adolescent addiction and gaming, said he was encouraged by the decision, which he hopes will spur conversations between parents and kids and heighten awareness.

But Jason cautioned that a child with gaming disorder would be an extreme case. WHO estimates less than 3 percent of all gamers are believed to have this.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

What are your thoughts on WHO's announcement?

This is a relatively new area. The gaming disorder stuff is more new. I think that the big issue for me is the violence that occurs on these games, and what does that mean? You expose young people to games that involve killings. Some of these games have really not been too friendly to women or girls, so I get concerned about the introduction of that. So what does that mean for parents? We're talking about exposure to some pretty violent stuff, in an era where we have a lot of violence in our communities.

The key thing is if a child tends to be predisposed toward being a little bit more aggressive and violent, they tend to like to watch these kinds of things more, and watching these things more and participating in them more can in a sense reinforce those initial tendencies.

What are signs of gaming disorder?

Maybe it's 1 to 3 percent that have a gaming disorder. And those are the extreme ones, and those are the ones who, they're basically doing gaming over other things in their life and it escalates. It basically gets them into trouble. So that's something that parents probably can pick up. For example, the kid comes home from school or doesn't even go to school, games from school into the evenings and on weekends. A child is basically spending all their leisure time not socializing with others, not doing their homework, not doing their chores, but gaming.

I think the harder ones are the kids who are doing a lot of gaming and other video-type stuff on the internet, such as that they're being exposed to lots of damaging images. Most kids can endure this, and basically it's not going to have serious mental health consequences.

How is gaming addiction similar to other addictions?

What happens is you want increasing amounts. Usually with drug addiction, you need to have more of the drug. Same thing here. If you're continuing increasing it, that's not a good sign. The other issue is if you stop it, just like heroin, if you stop opiates, you're going to have some pretty strong withdrawal effects. If a child doesn't have a chance to do their gaming for six hours and they go into some type of behavior patterns that are problematic, or withdrawal, that's a real sign that this is a problem.

What can parents do if they feel their child is spending too much time playing video games?

Childhood is not to be spent in a darkened room playing with a video game or on multiple devices. Childhood is about making friends, being outside and doing things that are involved in enriching your life. If a child is basically cutting out the types of things that they should be involved in -- homework, for example, having friends, socializing, learning what it's like to basically get involved in activities -- if they're not doing that and they're spending all their time gaming, that's a problem.

Parents should monitor their children. Parents have to find out what their children are doing.

If it's too much, try to distract a child and get the child interested in other things. Talk to the children. Just like when a child reads a book, you want to be able to talk to a child about what they're learning, same thing with gaming.

There might be a young child who's doing gaming that basically is having a real scare about something they participated in. The parent needs to know that. If the child's having nightmares, appetite issues, these are all warning signs. (A parent can ask): "How was your day? What type of gaming are you doing? How do you feel about it? What are you getting out of it?" Those type of open-ended questions are great.

If those things don't work, then you might actually want to try to bring a professional to help you -- social worker, psychologist, school psychologist. Intervene early and intervene decisively, because it's not something that's unimportant.

abowen@chicagotrtibune.com

Compulsive video-game playing now new mental health problem ┬╗Editorial: 'Gaming disorder' vs. 'digital wellness' ┬╗Commentary: I almost lost my sons to 'Fortnite' ┬╗

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