The World Health Organization (WHO) recently classified gaming addiction as a mental health disorder. In the last twenty years, the tech revolution has affected every aspect of our lives including education, employment, commerce, social learning, politics and our biggest concern here at GKIS, the family unit. Studies have shown that, for some subjects, compulsive screen use impacts the reward and pleasure areas of the brain in the same ways that alcohol, drugs, and behavioral addictions do. Screen addiction treatment centers have been popping up in Asia for the last decade and are starting to in the United States as well. Today’s GKIS article shows us what screen addiction treatment really looks like. Do you worry your child may be showing signs of screen addiction?


“Remember, when Betty Ford first admitted she was an alcoholic, we didn’t have people believing it was actually a problem until she came around and talked about her own problems with it. This is a place for people to go for help, and that we hope will help everyone around them stop taking Internet addiction so lightly.”

Kimberly Young (founder of The Center for Internet Addiction in 1995)


According to Apple, we check our iPhones an average of 80 times a day, 30,000 times a year. Nearly 60% of parents think their teens are addicted to their mobile devices. Articles complain about millennial and iGen fondness for tech and the declining work ethic.

Who is to blame?

Parents: Of course, we have some accountability for what happens under our roofs. Pester power breaks us down, and we allow too much screen use even though we know better. We need a break in our overtasked, screen-saturated lives. We can’t entertain our rugrats 24-7.

Kids: They are so persistent! They CRAVE screen use and are master manipulators.

Children are vulnerable to screen addiction, because their brains are not fully developed, particularly in the prefrontalcortex, which is responsible for impulse control and decision making. Children who suffer from trauma like bullying, divorce, and abuse, as well as from psychological vulnerabilities like ADHD, anxiety and mood disorders, and autism are particularly vulnerable.

Schools: Schools are increasingly adopting curriculums that require screen use and Internet access during classroom and homework time. Without digital literacy, our kids would academically falter.

Silicon Valley Tech, the Gaming Industry, Marketers: Screens are programmed to addict us. Big tech, like Google, Amazon, and Facebook, are experts in how to keep us coming back for more. Using secret computer algorithms, our online behavior is studied, collected, and aggregated. This data is used to create and deliver content in the ways our brains will effortlessly absorb.

Multi-level, high sensory games, like Fortnite and Call of Duty, are also intentionally programmed for addictive use. Dopamine surges in our brain’s’ pleasure centers provide a powerful positive reinforcement to keep coming back for more. Big tech captures us, studies us, and sells that data to marketers. That translates to targeted ads for clicks and money leaving our bank accounts. Big profit indeed.

The government: Where is the regulation to protect kids? Are civil liberties really that strong that legislators can’t step in to help parents? Or is it that research and treatment organizations can’t compete with very rich, private lobbyists who get direct access to our legislators? It’s both. Did you know that the advertising budget for Budweiser alone exceeds the entire budget for research on alcoholism and alcohol abusers?

What Does Addiction Look Like?

Behavioral addictions are still a controversial topic among mental health researchers. Currently, gambling disorder is the only behavioral addiction included in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – 5 (DSM-5), our primary diagnostic resource. However, even as early as its publication in 2013, enough research had surfaced about screen addiction that the substance use disorder work-group opted to list Internet gaming disorder (IGD) as a potential mental illness in need of further study, noting that gaming was distinctly more disabling than other behaviors.

Here are the official diagnostic criteria for diagnostic classification (5 are necessary for diagnosis):

  • Preoccupation:Do you spend a lot of time thinking about games even when you are not playing, or planning when you can play next?
  • Withdrawal: Do you feel restless, moody, irritable, angry, anxious, or sad when attempting to cut down or stop gaming, or when you’re unable to play?
  • Tolerance: Do you feel the need to play for increasing amounts of time, play more exciting games, or use more powerful equipment to get the same amount of excitement you used to get?
  • Reduce/stop: Do you feel that you should play less, but are unable to cut back on the amount of time you spend playing games?
  • Give up other activities: Do you lose interest in or reduce participation in other recreational activities (hobbies, meeting with friends) due to gaming?
  • Continue despite problems: Do you continue games even though you are aware of negative consequences, such as not getting enough sleep, being late to school/work, spending too much money, having arguments with others, or neglecting important duties.
  • Deceive/cover up: Do you lie to family, friends, or others about how much you game, or try to keep your family or friends from knowing how much you game?
  • Escape adverse moods: Do you game to escape from or forget about personal problems, or to relieve uncomfortable feelings such as guilt, anxiety, helplessness, or depression?
  • Risk/lose relationships/opportunities: Do you risk or lose significant relationships, or job, educational, or career opportunities because of gaming?

What does the World Health Organization (WHO) say?

The World Health Organization governs the writing and publication of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD). It’s used by doctors worldwide to diagnose conditions and by researchers to classify conditions.

“Gaming Disorder” is expected to be included in the newest edition (ICD-11), set to be presented to the World Health Organization in May of 2019. ICD-11 inclusion of this disorder is based on extensive research and evidence that reflects a consensus of experts from many disciplines and geographical regions.

Gaming disorder is defined in the draft 11th Revision of ICD as a pattern of gaming behavior (“digital-gaming” or “video-gaming”) characterized by:

  • impaired control over gaming,
  • increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and
  • continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.

Patterns of behavior must be severe enough to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other areas of functioning and persist for several months.

How common is Internet Gaming Addiction?

Recent studies claim that around 1 – 5% of the US population could be classified as Internet game addicted. It is most common among single young males. Male Internet addiction most typically involves video gaming, cyber-pornography, and online gambling.Women are more likely to show addictive use patterns with social media, texting, and online shopping. IGD commonly cooccurs with depression, anxiety, AD/HD, self-harm, obsessive-compulsive disorder, oppositionality, suicidality, and personality disorders.

Other risk factors include living in a metropolitan area, not living with biological parent, low parent involvement, parent unemployment, and not having a reliable friend. Consequences of IGD include pathological behaviors like skipping school, lower grades, family conflicts, lack of offline sociality, sleep problems, and unresolved developmental problems. These factors, along with escalating emotional problems, often result in a deprivation of the very resources necessary to break out of this vicious cycle.

What do the brain studies say?

Neuroimaging studies are increasingly finding evidence of distinct neurobiological changes similar to those seen in subjects with substance addictions. In other words, the more we play video games, the more our brains adapt. Activation pattern changes that result in brain tissue changes is called adaptive neuroplasticity. More specifically, IGD subjects show a reduction in gray and white brain matter and reduced cortical thickness in various areas of the brain. The longer the duration of playing the more significant the brain structure change.

Studies have also found evidence of dopamine release and higher activity in the brain’s pleasure center when playing video games.

Studies also show that heavy gamers have more difficulty regulating emotion and making sound decisions.

Thank you to CSUCI Intern, Katherine Bryan for contributing this article. Screen addiction is real and being universally recognized. If you worry you are seeing red flags in your home, maybe it’s time to get more proactive and even get professional help. Check out part two of our two-part series to find out about your options.

I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.

Onward to More Awesome Parenting,

Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty

Photo Credits

Everyone is really looking for the Z-generation’s grace Digital HungaryCC 2.o

It’s been such a long day Pat Charles CC 2.0

Gaming in the dark Jochem HerremansCC 2.0

Xbox ChapendraCC 2.0

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