computerkidThose in mental health circles are already aware that the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Disorders, aka the DSM-5, came out on May 18th. The new DSM changed, reorganized, and introduced certain mental health diagnoses.

One disorder which was put into Section III- which basically translates into “This might exist, but we need more research”, is Internet Gaming Disorder. This disorder signifies that certain people may become addicted to playing online or video games in the same way people can become addicted to gambling (which is a diagnosable disorder). The theory is that when playing games, some people experience intense activation of the “pleasure center” of the brain, similar to that experienced when taking an addictive drug.

I should clarify that there’s nothing wrong with playing video and online games! It can be a fun way to spend one’s time, or time with friends online, and may even have cognitive benefits. However, when gaming begins interfering with offline life, families may need to intervene.

For some parents, it’s difficult to ascertain exactly what sorts of behaviors would indicate a gaming addiction, as opposed to a gaming hobby or habit. It can also be very hard to tell if someone has a gaming addiction, as opposed to depression or social anxiety, which might result in some similar behaviors.

I can’t tell you exactly what symptoms would indicate an online or video gaming addiction (and, to be fair, neither can the DSM-5). I can, however, give you some signs to watch for if you’re concerned about your teen and playing games. Some of these symptoms might indicate addiction-like behaviors, and some might indicate another problem, but all of them warrant attention and a conversation with a mental health professional.

1. Inattention to physical needs. Any teen that has stopped eating, sleeping, or participating in basic general hygiene needs help quick, whether they’re playing games or not. There have been reports of teens and young adults needing hospitalization, or even dying, because they have played video games for long stretches while completely disregarding basic needs. This is extremely rare, and should just serve as a reminder that it’s always good to keep basic tabs on your teen, and whether they are eating and sleeping, no matter what activities they’re doing.

2.  Gaming is more important than anything. A teen that used to put off schoolwork by watching TV, and now puts off schoolwork by playing games, doesn’t necessarily have a gaming problem. However, a teen who previously took pride in academic achievement, and is now getting poor grades because they spend so much time playing games, may need some help. This is true for interaction with peers, work responsibilities, athletic or artistic pursuits, or anything else your teen used to truly enjoy, but has now fallen by the wayside as their time playing games increases.

3. Your teen is worried by their gaming. If your teen thinks they have a problem, they probably do. They might feel that their time gaming ends up leaving them depressed or unfulfilled, but they can’t seem to stop. If they’re telling you that they want to stop playing and thinking about games, but are having trouble, help them find a professional to talk to.

4. Your teen becomes irritable or hostile when they can’t play games. Most teens will be irritable or hostile sometimes. As long as this is occasional, and they’re not crossing the line into physical or emotional attacks, it can be within the realm of normal. But if your teen repeatedly becomes very angry or upset when separated from gaming- particularly if the separation has nothing to do with punishment or rule enforcement- this needs further assessment.

5. They are playing for longer and longer time periods, bordering on extremely long times. The definition of “extremely long” varies from person to person, so I would recommend taking a cautious view. Is 6 hours extreme? Probably not, unless that 6 hours starts at bedtime and there’s school the next day. Is 12 hours extreme? Maybe, but maybe not, as long as your teen saves this for the occasional free day. Is 18 hours extreme? If your teen and some friends stay up for an all-night marathon gaming session, this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to start worrying. However, a pattern of playing for 12 or 18 hours at a stretch may deserve some attention.

What other behaviors have you seen that may be cause for concern?