Wesley Hospital Kogarah addiction expert warns parents of gaming disorders before buying Christmas gifts

Screen time dangers: Gaming disorder often begins in childhood.
Screen time dangers: Gaming disorder often begins in childhood.

Parents think twice – not just if your child has been naughty or nice this Christmas.

With the increasing popularity of video games, doctors are warning families about the risks of video game addiction, which can have long-term effects on children.

Director of drugs and alcohol at Wesley Hospital Kogarah, John Saunders, says parents should be aware of the potential dangers that lurk behind screens ahead of the gift giving period.

The hospital, which is run by Wesley Mission, supports patients by helping them manage and recover from different addictions.

Dr Saunders, an internationally acclaimed expert, spoke at a World Health Organisation conference on behavioural addiction, this month in China.

He is delivering a telling warning to Australian gamers and parents in the lead up to Christmas, with as many as five per cent of young people being addicted to gaming.

“Online gaming becomes a disorder when a person is engaged in it persistently – usually for longer than 12 months – to such an extent that their control becomes impaired, gaming takes priority over other responsibilities and they cannot stop,” Dr Saunders said.

“Higher among males, it activates the same areas of the brain as gambling disorder or substance addiction, and shares similar features. People can become moody or irritable if they are unable to game, and they can build up a tolerance and need to game for longer periods of time.”

Wesley Hospital Kogarah's Dr John Saunders is an expert in treating addictions.

Wesley Hospital Kogarah's Dr John Saunders is an expert in treating addictions.

He says gaming disorder can cause serious physical and mental health problems, plus social or academic issues.

Signs to look out for include changes in emotional state, sleeping patterns, body weight, and a loss of interest in the outside world.

“There are some people whose lives are so dominated by online gaming, they can game for 10 or more hours a day,” Dr Saunders said.

“This often causes sleep deprivation, mood changes, compromised physical health, a withdrawal from social activities, and poorer performance at work or school.”

He says the principles of recovery apply equally to all addiction disorders, but treatments such as those at Wesley Kogarah, can be tailored specifically for gaming disorder.

“Addiction recovery programs at specialised clinics such as Wesley Hospital provide comprehensive physical and psychiatric assessment, detoxification and rehabilitation,” he said.

“Three-week inpatient detox and day-patient programs are available. These use cognitive behaviour therapy to teach people the skills to manage triggers, prevent relapse, recognise their emotions and personal responsibility, and develop relationships and healthy lifestyles, to assist in recovery.

“About 50 per cent of patients also needed to be treated for underlying mental health disorders, such as social phobia, and medication is considered in some instances.”

SIGNS TO LOOK OUT FOR:

  • Gaming for multiple hours a day

While many young people play online games for one or two hours each day or only on weekends, someone with an addiction will binge for hours on end, even to 10-14 hours a day.  Gaming disorder often begins in childhood but becomes excessive in adolescence, as people spend more and more time in the virtual world.

  • Loss of interest in work or studies

Gaming can consume a person’s life to such an extent that it takes precedence over study or work. It is common for young people with gaming disorder to lose interest in their studies, skip days at school, and even drop out prematurely.

  • Violence or aggression when unable to play

Changes in mood are common for someone with gaming disorder if they are unable to play, or in the event that their parent confiscates their game or restricts their gaming time. The gamer may become moody, irritable, act aggressively or even become violent.

  • Body weight changes

When the addiction becomes severe, a person’s health and diet deteriorates. Weight loss and consequent vitamin and mineral depletion are signs of a gaming addiction, as they skip meals or wait until they are extremely hungry before eating. Other gamers may become overweight from the lack of exercise and the increase in high-calorie foods, soft drinks or stimulant drinks.

  • Change in sleeping patterns

Day and night patterns often reverse. A gaming addict will play video games late into the night and, as a result, sleep during the day. This will make them irritable and moody as they try to meet the demands of work or study on their clock, and low in vitamin D due to lack of sunshine.

  • Loss of interest in friendships and the outside world

Losing interest in the outside world, becoming withdrawn from social activities, turning down invitations from friends, or spending less time with the family are often signs. Video games often involve three to eight players, so while an addict may gain virtual friends, they can lose friends in the real world.

  • Preoccupied with thoughts about gaming

Most people who play video games will think about it from time to time, but an addicted person will be preoccupied with thoughts of their last gaming session or will be anticipating their next one.

  • Poor hygiene

A person with a video game addiction may not take the time to properly care for themselves. They may stop showering, brushing their teeth or washing their clothes regularly.

  • Inability to stop playing

Like alcohol or drugs, a person with a gaming addiction will have impaired control over gaming. They will not be able to stop playing despite the negative consequences.

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