Gaming Addiction: Inside look at the real and dangerous disorder affecting youth

ATLANTA — George Spears can't remember a time when he wasn't addicted to video games. The memories of being kicked out of high school and college because of his addiction still haunt him.

"And I do mean addicted," Spears said. "I'm sure there are many opportunities in life that I would have had, had I figured this out sooner."

Spears, along with 29-year-old Zachary Rudd and 18-year-old Marcus Coalson, recall losing hours and sometimes days because of excessive gaming.

For Rudd, gaming took over his life and his studies at Georgia Tech.

"Eventually I dropped out and that's been hard on me," Rudd said.

Coalson said while some use alcohol to escape, he would use games.

All three found help for excessive gaming at Warnecke Professional Counseling in Marietta. Founder Andrew Warnecke told Channel 2 consumer advisor Clark Howard he's seen multiple clients dealing with issues from gaming or withdrawal from gaming.

Channel 2 Action News spoke with mental health professionals worried that companies are developing highly addictive games. Industry insiders say that's not happening.

"I see a lot of depression, I see a lot of mood swings, even mood swings where a parent says, I think my kid is bi-polar," Warnecke said. "Kind of like alcohol or drugs do it makes you feel good in the moment, but that world quickly fades."

The growing industry

Last year the video game industry brought in over $43 billion in revenue, according to the Entertainment Software Association. Over 164 million American adults play some type of video game. The industry provides more than entertainment, it employs over 200,000 people throughout the United States.

Georgia Game Developers Association executive director Andrew Greenberg said people who don't game are the exception, not the rule.

"I think what we have seen is society catching up to what gamers always knew. This is an extremely fun socially satisfying way to spend one's time" Greenberg said.

He said finding the right work, life entertainment balance is key. "We don't want to take any areas to an extreme. We want to have a fulfilling life in all of these aspects."

Sounding the alarm

"I think the video game companies definitely bear responsibility for making the games that are highly addictive and that they know perfectly well what they are doing" said psychotherapist Hilarie Cash.

Cash cofounded tech addiction rehab facility Restart 10 years ago.

She told Channel 2 Action News the problem is nothing new.

"Ever since the mid-nineties I've been specializing in internet addiction" she said.

Patrick Murphy, 21,  traveled from his home in New Jersey to Bellevue, Washington, where Restart is located, for treatment. Murphy said he used to deny being addicted to video games, but knew he had a problem long before he hit rock bottom.

"I spent $16,000 in three months on video games and tech related things," Murphy said. "I had serious thoughts of ending my life."

After his mom confronted him about his gaming, they began looking for a place to get help and found Restart.

"The program puts a lot of emphasis into showing you that there's other things to do other than video games," Murphy said. "It shows you how to practice daily life … and what avenues you can take to not fall into your old patterns of self-destruction."

Cash told Channel 2 the recovery process for individuals dealing with a gaming addiction is much different than someone struggling with substance abuse.

"These guys have a tougher job because they're gonna have to use technology and they're gonna have to learn how to use it well," Cash said. He said they need to do that without falling back into the same addictive patterns.

Cash said many times gaming addiction masks deeper problems.

"After they've gone through their detox period which lasts anywhere from two to four weeks, then we get to see what's there," she said.

A Diagnosis

Earlier this year the World Health Organization announced it will be adding, "Gaming Disorder" to the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).

According to the WHO the disorder affects only a small amount of people who engage in gaming activities.

Greenberg was surprised by the WHO's decision and said there are concerns in misusing the word addiction.

"We can certainly talk about bad habits we can talk about compulsive behavior be it my overeating or dieting or whatever, but we don't classify these as addictions," he said.

He's not alone in his concern. Many in the mental health arena think the decision was made without proper research.

Dr. Anthony Bean is one of them. As a licensed clinical psychologist and video game researcher he said games can be helpful in therapy setting and encourages parents to engage with their children.

"Find someone who knows the culture … be conscious of what your kids are playing" Bean said.

Both Warnecke and Cash hope the American Psychiatric Association (APA) follows suit in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

According the APA, there has not been a proposal submitted to change Internet Gaming Disorder to a diagnosable disorder. It is currently in the section of the DSM-5 that "encourages further study".
The group points to research done in 2017 on adults in the U.S., United Kingdom, Canada and Germany, which found that at most the issues impacts 1% of gamers.

What Parents Can Do

"I think the parent needs to look at their own activity and figure out how much screen time they're using," Warnecke said parental regulation equals kid regulation.

While not everyone agrees on the WHO's decision, everyone agrees parents need to be involved.

"I can only speak from what I needed back then and what I needed was someone to ask me what was wrong," Murphy said.

He finished at Restart in September. His goal now is to moderate his use.

"The thing is for me is I use to bury my emotions. My goal coming here was to be able to feel again," he said.

For more information about how to understand and stay on top of your child's gaming, you can visit www.ParentalTools.org or internetmatters.org.