WHO Calls Extreme Gaming a Mental Health 'Disorder'

02 July, 2018

From VOA Learning English, this is the Health & Lifestyle report.

One of the most common complaints among American parents today is children spending too much time on a computer or other electronic devices. This is especially true if the child spends several hours a day playing video games.

Parents may begin to worry that gaming is more than just a waste of time. They fear it might become an addiction. The child could develop a strong desire or need to keep playing.

Is extreme gaming similar to a drug addiction? Here, a referee watches over competitors during a video game tournament in Toronto, Canada, March 26, 2017. (REUTERS/Mark Blinch)
Is extreme gaming similar to a drug addiction? Here, a referee watches over competitors during a video game tournament in Toronto, Canada, March 26, 2017. (REUTERS/Mark Blinch)

Officials at the World Health Organization are worried, too. They say playing video games creates strong feelings of pleasure and reward in the brain. And in some cases, that can lead to addictive behavior. So, the WHO has listed "gaming disorder" as a mental health condition.

Mental health experts are debating whether the move is helpful or not. They say the WHO's declaration may simply frighten parents into thinking their child is addicted to video games.

But to others, the possibility of gaming becoming an addiction is very real. After all, video game creators want to design programs that keep people playing.

People can slowly become addicted to video gaming. Some may play for hours. They lose interest in doing other things. They stop going to school or work.

Canadian Cam Adair was one of them.

"Originally when I started gaming, it was fine. You know, I was a healthy, happy kid ... played hockey. But eventually, it began to become a problem. And I actually ended up dropping out of high school, not once but twice, never graduated, never went to college. And it got to a point where I was pretending to have jobs, playing video games up to 16 hours a day."

Some addiction experts say signs of gaming addiction are similar to alcoholism and drug addiction.

Christopher Mulligan is director of the Cyber Addiction Recovery Center in Los Angeles. He also treats patients for all kinds of technology addiction -- from gaming to text messaging.

He says that video game addicts experience the same highs and lows as drug addicts do.

The high is from dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain. It is responsible for sending signals between nerve cells, or neurons. As Mulligan notes, one of the lows is when the gamer stops playing.

"Gamers, texters, kids that are reading and like watching YouTube videos get this dopamine release. When it stops abruptly ... they really experience almost spontaneous withdrawals."

But not everyone who plays video games is addicted. Based on reports, the WHO estimates that only a very small percentage of video game players are addicts, about 3 percent in all. It adds that most of them are from East and South Asia.

Warning signs: When normal gaming becomes an addiction

But that does not mean we can't watch for warning signs. The WHO's Shekhar Saxena says there are some signs that may mean a person has or is developing a gaming addiction.

"Be careful if the person you are with ... is using gaming in an excessive manner. If it is consuming too much time and if it is interfering with the expected functions of the person -- whether it is studies, whether it is socialization, whether it is work -- then you need to be cautious and perhaps seek help."

Some experts reject the idea of listing extreme video gaming as an addiction. They argue that extreme gaming is a sign of other problems.

These experts say that some people use video games to help with nervousness or depression. They add that children are more likely to get addicted to video games if they lack social skills. When children are better socially, they say, their need for gaming will decline.

Cam Adair, the former video game addict, welcomed the WHO's decision. He said it will lead to greater recognition of the problem so that people can get treatment.

Christopher Mulligan notes that addiction to video games cannot be treated in the same way as alcoholism or drug abuse. A person can avoid drugs and alcohol. But that is not the case with modern technology. The goal, he adds, is to create a relationship with technology that can last throughout the person's life.

"They're going to have to get back online, eventually. They're going to have to use their computers. They are going to have to use their phones. So, it's really teaching this very challenging goal of (a) sustainable relationship to technology."

The World Health Organization says identifying gaming disorder as a disease will help its members recognize the problem and prepare ways to treat it.

And that's the Health & Lifestyle report. I'm Anna Matteo.

Zlatica Hoke and Lisa Schlein each reported on this story for VOANews. Anna Matteo adapted their reports for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

addiction n. a strong and harmful need to regularly have something (such as a drug) or do something (such as gamble)

complaint n. a statement that you are unhappy or not satisfied with something

reward psychology n. Certain neural structures, called the reward system, are critically involved in mediating the effects of reinforcement. A reward is a stimulus given to a human or some other animal to alter its behavior.

originally adv. in the beginning : when something first happened or began

pretendv. to act as if something is true when it is not true

abruptly adv. very sudden and not expected

spontaneous adj. done or said in a natural and often sudden way and without a lot of thought or planning

excessive adj. going beyond what is usual, normal, or proper

cautiousadj. careful about avoiding danger or risk

sustainable adj. able to last or continue for a long time