Local health experts are applauding the World Health Organization for declaring compulsive video game playing an addictive behaviour disorder.
According to WHO, those affected show a pattern of behaviour characterized by “impaired control over gaming,” with increasing priority given to video games despite negative consequences.
Ottawa’s medical officer of health said the UN health agency’s designation gives the disorder much-needed greater profile.
“It’s recognizing that the behaviour people engage in, in gaming, can reach the point where it’s disordered, which means that it’s affecting someone’s ability to either maintain relationships, get to school, get to work, [maintain] finances,” said Dr. Vera Etches.
“It can promote people recognizing that it’s something that could be treated.”
WHO said cases of gaming disorder are still very rare, with no more than three per cent of all gamers believed to be affected.
Dr. Michael Cheng, a child and family psychiatrist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), said while gaming has become a problem for some, there is an overarching issue.
“Here at CHEO we’re seeing an explosion of children and youth who have mental health issues and when we dig deeper [and ask] why are there more kids who have mental health issues, it turns out that many of them are having these issues because they’re over-connected to technology.”
Cheng said between 2011-2018, CHEO saw a 74-per-cent increase in emergency department visits for mental health issues.
He said parents need to pay close attention to how much time their children spend playing video games so that they can detect when it becomes problematic.
“It’s a bit harmless at first,” said Cheng.
“But when it gets to the point that [gaming is] all that they want to do— when they just want to stay in their room, not leave their room, not participate with the family, not go to school — then it becomes a problem,” he added.
“We are seeing an explosion in kids who are dropping out of school because they are trapped in their rooms unable to leave that virtual world.”
Cheng notes that some kids are more vulnerable than others to becoming addicted.
“Some kids can spend two to three hours a day [gaming] and they can probably still connect to the real world,” he said.
“But some kids, even thirty minutes they become addicted. That’s all they want. They have tantrums if their parents [make them] stop.”
Parents need to lead by example
Cheng said parents need to demonstrate what healthy technology consumption looks like by carefully moderating their own use.
“As parents and adults we need to set good examples,” he said.
“You go to any public place nowadays — to any restaurant, on the train, on the bus — everywhere you look you see people who could be connecting with each other but they’re connected to their devices. They’re addicted to their cell phones.”
Cheng said having children spend time outside is key to improving their socialization skills and limiting their time in front of screens.
“We all need a connection to nature. We all need … face-to-face contact. We all need a connection to things which give us purpose, belonging. hope and meaning,’ he said.
“My advice for parents would be, pretend it’s 1980. Pretend it’s how it was when you grew up.”
Don’t go cold turkey
When it comes to getting children to game less, Dr. Cheng suggests weaning them off slowly.
“We usually recommend not cutting off the tech cold turkey,” he said.
He said parents should reconnect with their kids before asking those kids to unplug.
“Make sure as a parent you’re putting down your own device. Make sure as a parent you’re having family meals together. Make sure as a parent that you have one-on-one time with your kid in nature, undistracted by a device.”