treating video game addiction in teens

Video Game Addiction is Mental Health Condition

Elk River specializes in the treatment of teenage video game addiction

Video Game Addiction Treatment and Help for Teens

Over the years as video games evolved into complex and realistic escapes for players of all ages, the mental health professionals at Elk River Treatment Program (ERTP) began to see an increase in admissions of teens with an intense obsession with gaming. Since ERTP's Treatment Team already addressed the source of addictive behavior rather than just the behavior itself, the program was well equipped to address video game addiction that includes, but is not limited to, online gaming, role-playing games or any interactive gaming environment.

In January 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) included gaming disorder to the beta draft of its forthcoming 11th International Classification of Diseases. May 25, 2019, WHO officially voted to adopt the latest edition of its International Classification of Diseases (ICD) to include an entry on "gaming disorder" as a behavioral addiction. Also in 2019, Internet Gaming Disorder was included in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

The WHO defines the mental health disorder as a "persistent or recurrent" behavior pattern of "sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning."

This may not be surprising to many parents. According to Pew Research Center, more than eight-in-ten teens (84%) report access to a game console at home, and 90% play video games on a computer, game console or cell phone. Ninety-seven percent of teenage boys play video games on some device - compared to 83% of girls.

When to Consider Video Game Addiction Treatment

Gaming stimulates the brain’s “reward centers” which simulates the same high that a person with drug or alcohol problem might experience. While most people associate addiction with substances such as drugs or alcohol, doctors recognize online gaming addictive behaviors as well. If your teen would prefer to play video games than hang out with friends, play sports or even bathe regardless of negative consequences – then your teen may need treatment for video game addiction.

Before an adolescent is admitted to ERTP, an in-depth screening begins with the first conversation between parents* and a professional admissions adviser. If parents and Elk River's admission department determine that the teen meets the criteria for admission, the admission process continues with a comprehensive enrollment application where parents expand on their concerns that led to placing their child in a residential therapeutic program.

“Parents are relieved to discover that our program acknowledges and actually specializes in video game addiction treatment,” said ERTP's Director of Admissions Kathy DeMellier, LPC. Ms. DeMellier holds a Master's Degree in Counseling and is a Licensed Professional Counselor with more than 30 years of experience working with at-risk teens. "We have always treated obsessive gaming and other excessive electronic use as a symptom of an underlying, more severe issue that the child is experiencing. These distractions must be removed before the child can uncover what is driving the need to avoid painful feelings," DeMellier explained. ERTP does not allow clients to use electronics except in a strictly monitored school setting.

Insurance Companies Play Down Video Game Addiction

ERTP's admission office answers hundreds of calls or emails from concerned parents but only a small percentage develop into an admission. The common reason is lack of funding for treatment. Since video gaming has not been defined as a mental health disorder until now, insurance companies have been denying coverage unless the client presents with another mental health disorder. Co-occurring disorders are commonly present but are not easily diagnosed until the child is in an intense therapeutic environment like ERTP.

With no insurance coverage, most families cannot afford a private residential program like Elk River Treatment Program that is licensed by the State of Alabama Department of Youth Services and accredited in Behavioral Health Care by The Joint Commission. Insurance companies are more likely to cover "gaming disorder" with its recognition in the International Classification of Diseases.

Even if a call does not result in an admission, parents benefit from DeMellier's 25+ years of experience in the teen residential treatment industry where she has witnessed the positive transformation of children and their families. Discovering that their screen-obsessed child is possibly suffering from a psychological disorder can be somewhat of a relief to parents who have been told that their child is simply defiant or spoiled.

The Biological Aspect of Video Game Addiction

Unlike alcohol and drug addiction, the biological aspect of video game addiction is uncertain. Research suggests gambling elevates dopamine, but there’s more to addiction than brain chemistry. Online gaming allows a person to escape the real world and change the perception of self-worth.

The lure of a fantasy world is especially pertinent to online role-playing games. These are games in which a player assumes the role of a fictional character and interacts with other players in a virtual world. An intelligent child who is unpopular at school can feel dominant in the game. The virtual life becomes more appealing than real life.

Too much gaming may seem relatively harmless compared with the dangers of a drug overdose, but experts say video game addiction can ruin lives. Children who play four to five hours per day have no time for socializing, doing homework or playing sports leaving little time for normal social development. Imagine a 21-year-old with the emotional intelligence of a 12-year-old who has never learned to talk to girls or never learned to play a team sport.

Some gamers exhibit severe withdrawal symptoms, becoming angry, violent, or depressed if electronics are restricted. Residential treatment is a safe setting for withdrawal from any addiction. ERTP conducts comprehensive assessments and evaluations immediately upon admission and uses the results to develop an Individualized treatment plan.

Video Game Addiction Warning Signs

Signs of a growing dependency or internet gaming disorder might include:

  • Preoccupation or obsession with internet, online gaming or use of social media
  • Withdrawal, irritability and/or lack of functioning when child is restricted from playing
  • Loss of interest in other activities or friends
  • Lying about amount of time spent paying video games
  • Escapes from real-life problems, anxiety, or depression
  • A tolerance to gaming - needs to spend more time gaming to satisfy urge

Individuals with a possible addiction to video gaming addiction are typically males, under age 30 and often children with poor self-esteem and social problems, according to specialists. They are intelligent and imaginative but don’t have many friends at school.

A family history of addiction may also be a factor in the propensity of video game addiction which is why ERTP admission counselors require extensive background information from parents before admitting their child into the program. Our treatment team often finds that gaming is a symptom of an underlying problem such as depression or anxiety - more of a dependency than a disorder or addiction.

Questions parents might ask about getting video game addiction help

Q. I am concerned my child is addicted to online gaming, how do I know if he/she needs treatment?

A. Some of the key signs that your child may be addicted to online gaming include: Irregular daily schedule. If your child plays games all night long and sleeps in the daytime, that can be a warning he or she should seek professional help. If child stops going to school, sports, or other social activities in order to be online or to play a video games. Does your child have to play for longer and longer periods of time to get the same level of enjoyment from the game? Many children that are addicted to gaming become irritable and anxious when they are unable to play regularly. Some video game addicted children experience strong cravings or withdrawals when they are unable to play.

Q. What are the first steps that I should take if I think my child has a problem with obsessive gaming?

A. Start with modeling better boundaries with electronics yourself. You can't expect your child to "do as I say, not as I do." Second, individual or family counseling will help your child recognize that the video gaming or screen time is likely a diversion from a situation or feeling that he or she does not know how to handle. Should less restrictive levels of intervention fail, consider inpatient or a residential treatment program like Elk River Treatment Program that recognize video addiction.

Q. Should I limit access or remove the ability for my child to use video games, cell phones or computers?

A. An addiction or dependence on video gaming should be treated differently from an addiction to alcohol or drugs. Drug and alcohol addiction is treated with abstinence. An addiction to food must be treated as rebuilding a relationship with food. Electronics are in our lives to stay. Your child will need to rebuild a relationship to video games.

Our residential treatment program can help

For more information about video game addiction treatment, please contact an admissions adviser at 866-906-TEEN (8336) or send a confidential email to [email protected].

*Note: The term "parents" in this article pertains to any adult who is parenting a child. For example grandparents, aunts/uncles, caregivers and guardians.