Q: [All Ages] I can’t seem to pry my teen away from his Xbox. Is “gaming disorder” a real addiction and how can I tell if it’s affecting my child?
A: Studies have shown that video games and other addictions, such as alcohol and nicotine, affect neural pathways in similar ways: They all lead to an increase in dopamine levels in specific pleasure centers of the brain.
While drugs increase dopamine levels far more than video games, gaming can have a similar deleterious effect of “taking over” a person’s life.
One of the key ways that gaming addiction differs from other addictions is that it goes unnoticed or accepted for far longer. We will sometimes even push our kids to play video games as a way to keep them safe and quiet, but what we don’t realize is that we might be perpetuating an addiction.
When parents bring up the social isolation problem with kids, they’ll often say, “I have friends. They’re online and I play with them.” But if they’re only getting engaged socially online that reinforces that they don’t need to go out into the community.
A lot of kids only find pleasure in these video games, and that addiction leads toward depression, impairment, sleep disturbances, energy loss, focus issues and a loss of pleasure in different aspects of their lives. If you see these things, those are red flags.
Also, if they play for hours without taking a break, without eating, if you notice weight loss, it’s time to take the video games away.
Another big red flag is if kids become violent or threaten suicide if you try to limit their play. We’ve seen this happen, and parents had to seek psychiatric hospitalization.
“Gaming disorder” isn’t limited to teens—adults and very young children are susceptible, too. When we recently presented in front of a local school district, it was the elementary school principals who were most interested because they are seeing skyrocketing rates of depression and anxiety as a direct result of device use and video game addiction.
Sina Safahieh, M.D., is the medical director of the ASPIRE program. Hoag’s Pickup Family Neurosciences Institute is offering the acclaimed ASPIRE program as an evidence-based intensive outpatient program to treat teen anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions.