Understanding gaming addiction and its impact

The case of 21-year old man in Belgavi who reportedly killed his father for preventing him from playing a popular online game to which he was addicted has once again put the spotlight on the relationship between gaming addiction and psychological disturbances. The World Health Organisation (WHO) included Gaming Disorder in its list of International Classification of Diseases earlier this year. The condition is a cause for serious concern among parents and caregivers given the widespread use of mobile phones and other connected devices among children, adolescents and even adults. We look at what constitutes gaming addiction and a few simple measures to take in situations of overuse.

At the outset, it must be understood that gaming is seen by users as a stress buster, a way to feel good and to boost one’s self-esteem by acquiring high scores or appreciation for their gaming skill. It also helps to satisfy users’ intrinsic needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness to others, which are, in turn, associated with well-being.

However, indulging in excessive or addictive usage could be associated with psychological disturbances such as the experience of negative emotions – frustration, anxiety, sadness, and fear. It has also been associated with depression, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) and anxiety. Depression seems to be the most common symptom associated with gaming in all age groups (adolescents, adults, and the general population).

The presence of these psychological disturbances also influences the user’s reaction to frustration in the gaming environment, for example, frequently losing in the game, restriction for use of technology or slow internet speed. They may experience negative emotions while playing, be unable to maintain a healthy lifestyle, and experience decreased or negative evaluation by others. There could be verbal and physical expressions of anger, threatening of self-harm if technology is not restored and feeling of lack of empathy from parents and counselling professionals or feeling that nobody understands them.

Understanding gaming disorder

WHO defines gaming disorder as a pattern of gaming behaviour – either digital gaming or video gaming – characterised 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.” If a user is experiencing these characteristics for a period of 12 months he or she can be seen as addicted to gaming.

As per studies, the disorder affects only a small proportion of people who engage in digital or video gaming activities. But users must be sensitive to signs of excessive indulgence in gaming i.e. the amount of time they spend on gaming activities, particularly when it is to the exclusion of other important daily activities and in terms of its effects on their physical or psychological health and social functioning that could be attributed to their pattern of gaming behaviour.

Studies suggest that depression is the leading co-morbid condition with Internet addiction, whereas loneliness, boredom and stress are also associated with addictive use of gaming.

In another study (Sharma, 2017) on gaming and psychological predispositions, it was also found that addictive gamers had low life satisfaction and higher externalising behaviour (anger dyscontrol, expression of anger towards others, and anxiety).

What is unique to these games

First, manipulation features allow users/players to experiment with a sense of mastery over the game and an ability to simultaneously manage numerous resources. It also helps gamers to play for long periods of time.

Second, the narrative and identity features, like using devices or features available for a particular game to maximize the good experience of playing, available graphics etc. allow a complete immersion in the video game and to take on another identity in the game. Sometimes users use various strategies to extend their play time.

Third, due to peer pressure as well as presence of other psychological predispositions, they learn various expression which are not healthy.

Impact on parents

Caregivers of those indulging in excessive gaming have expressed concerns over truancy from school, falling academic grades, decreased social activities, irritability if unable to play for long periods of time or when advised to stop, an increase in expressions of aggression, wrist pain and neck pain. Presence of these issues leads to presence of psychiatric distress among caregivers as well and loss of pleasurable activities. In some cases, one parent decides to give up his or her career to manage the user’s addiction.

Here is what parents can do if they feel their child is addicted to gaming: First get factual information about online games. Understand what the user is attracted to. Not all users become addictive users. Not all users indulge in self-harm or harm others. It happens more in cases where users have other significant psychosocial issues along with gaming.

Caregivers could learn a method of relaxation so they can help users better. They could communicate with users to understand the reasons for excessive use (sometimes it may be a genuine reason).

Recognise signs of excessive use such as the continuous desire to access technology, making an excuse to extend usage or losing control over use and manifestation of physical, psychological and social consequences. If these are present, discuss with the user and plan collaborative management.

Users themselves can also find out about signs of excessive use. If it is present they could discuss it with their parents, counsellors or professionals for further help.

(Dr. Manoj Kumar Sharma is a professor of clinical psychology and the coordinator of SHUT clinic (Service for Healthy Use of Technology) at NIMHANS)

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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