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At the beginning of 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially listed gaming addiction as a psychological illness in the 11th International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), its tool for diagnosing, managing and treating different physical and mental disorders.
But that doesn’t mean those of us who regularly play video games or use social apps should start worrying that we’re mentally ill … does it?
In fact, the line between frequent use and psychological addiction is pretty clear, and is helpful to know for anyone wondering whether they or their friends spend too much time in front of video games.
How is gaming addiction different from frequent gaming?
According to various psychological experts, the biggest indicator of whether you’re addicted to something isn’t what you do but what you don’t do as a result.
For example, two different people could each spend 12 hours a day playing video games or using apps. But if one of them holds down a job and maintains their hygiene and personal relationships while the other neglects their job, friends and self-care, then only one of them has a mental illness needing immediate treatment. The first guy might have features of gaming addiction, but few psychologists would say that he is an addict.
That being said, gaming addiction has been a slippery concept for psychologists to pin down. It isn’t even in the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
That’s because gaming addiction is a relatively new field in psychology that has only gotten serious study within the last 15 years or so. Previous to that, gaming addiction studies focused mostly on gambling addiction, but gaming and gambling aren’t the same: A gambling addiction could easily blow your entire life’s savings in a single bet, whereas a gaming addiction tends to create negative consequences more quietly and over a longer period of time — though the rise of freemium games and purchasable online content is certainly giving games the potential to be more financially ruinous.
How the WHO and APA each define gaming addiction
The WHO and APA have different diagnostic criteria for determining whether someone has a gaming addiction (or “gaming disorder” as the WHO calls it).
The WHO says mental health professionals can only diagnose someone as suffering from gaming addiction if their symptoms have lasted “at least 12 months” (or fewer “if symptoms are severe”). Other prescribed symptoms include an inability to control the frequency, intensity or duration of one’s gaming sessions; an increased priority given to gaming over other obligations or needs; and a “continuation or escalation of gaming despite negative consequences.”
While the APA hasn’t listed gaming addiction as a diagnosable mental illness just yet — namely because they say it hasn’t been studied enough — they’ve still listed “Internet Gaming Disorder” into Section 3 of the fifth edition of their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (also known as the DSM-5). Section 3 is a place in the DSM-5 for potential disorders needing further research.
Nevertheless, the APA lists seven symptomatic criteria for “Internet Gaming Disorder,” including: excessive use (over six hours of gaming or internet use a day), increased use to escape negative feelings, increased anxiety or irritability when separated from games/tech, inability to function in non-gaming social environments, loss of interest in loved ones and hobbies and the inability to stop gaming despite negative personal consequences.
If you continue experiencing these symptoms over three months, the APA says you might have a gaming addiction.
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