Video Game Addiction: Signs, Effects and Treatment


Does it seem like a member of your family has a video game addiction? Chances are they probably don’t, but if you have concerns, we’re here to help. The World Health Organization added gaming disorder as an official diagnosis in the 11th edition of its International Classification of Diseases (ICD), which means healthcare providers can diagnose video game addiction as a mental health disorder. We ask two UnityPoint Health doctors, a pediatrician and an addiction specialist, what this all means for you and your family.

How Do You Know if You or a Family Member is Addicted to Video Games?

“It might be easiest to explain this with a comparison to alcoholism,” Kirk Moberg, MD, addiction specialist for UnityPoint Health, says. “The vast majority of people who enjoy video games don't suffer from a video game addiction, just as the vast majority of people who drink alcohol don't suffer from alcoholism. The disorder is not characterized by an observation, concluding that somebody else games too much. The disorder is characterized by compulsive use, despite negative consequences.”

What Are Signs of Video Game Addiction?

“Signs include changes in behavior and mood, such as social isolation, ignoring previously enjoyed activities and withdrawal when not playing — all of which might result in irritability, anxiety or depression. You might also notice declining performance in school or work or loss of control over time spent in gaming,” Dr. Moberg says.

What Are the Physical Consequences of a Gaming Addiction?

“Consequences of video game addiction can showcase in a number of ways, including wrist, neck and elbow pain, skin blisters, calluses and sleep disorders. Long-term addiction could lead to obesity, weakness or numbness in the hands (peripheral neuropathy) and even blood clots,” Dr. Moberg says.

What Are Treatment Options for a Gaming Disorder?

“The main treatments would include the use of standard psychological techniques, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. This treatment is based on the premise that thoughts influence feelings and feelings influence behavior, which influences thoughts, etc. It teaches individuals to recognize and modify inaccurate thought patterns to help cope with varying life situations. There are some initial studies on medications, but this isn’t a robust option yet,” Dr. Moberg says.

Who Does Gaming Disorder Target?

“There's not one age at which gaming disorder starts,” Amy Shriver, MD, UnityPoint Health pediatrician, says. “Ninety percent of children and teens are gaming in our society, but only one to nine percent will go on to develop gaming disorder. Like any addiction, there are some who are more at risk. Children and teens who play more video games and have lower social competence (below normal social, emotional, cognitive or behavioral skills) and greater impulsiveness (ability to act on a whim) were at higher risk of becoming pathological gamers, according to a 2011 pediatrics study.”

What are the Effects of Video Games on Children?

“As a parent, it's worth monitoring the effect of video games on your children. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recognizes exposure to violence in media, including video games, puts children at a significant risk for aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares and fear of being harmed. Parents should carefully monitor the content of their child’s games and monitor for age appropriateness. It’s a good idea to check ratings on games, which you can do on sites like Common Sense Media.” Dr. Shriver says.

How Long Should My Child Be Allowed to Play Video Games?

“Beyond monitoring the effects of violent video games on children and teenagers, it's important to create an appropriate balance for your family. When discussing gaming with school-age kids, parents should be good ‘media mentors’ and pay attention to the three C’s: the content, the context and the child. As recommended by the AAP, parents can create a family media plan and monitor quality and age appropriateness of gaming. Video games shouldn’t displace activities critical for children’s health, such as mealtimes, appropriate sleep, play time with friends, exercise and schoolwork,” Dr. Shriver says.

If you’re concerned video games are having a negative impact on your child’s mental health, talk to their doctor about a plan that can help.