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Gaming Disorder Warning Signs: What Every Parent Needs to Know

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As a mother of a 14-year-old who likes to play Fortnite, this week’s news from the World Health Organization (WHO) caught my attention. The WHO has officially listed “gaming disorder” as a mental health condition in their 11th edition of International Classification of Diseases (ICD), which came out earlier this week.

While there’s some controversy as to whether or not online gaming disorder should really be classified as a mental health condition, everyone seems to agree that too much gaming is a serious concern.

“I often tell parents they would never let their child eat six bowls of ice cream for dinner, so they also shouldn’t allow six hours of screen time just because the child wants it,” says Lesli Preuss, a licensed clinical child and family psychologist.

I wholeheartedly agree with the advice, but it’s easier said than done, especially in summer. I’d like to think that my kids spend their days playing outside and reading books to grow their minds, but if I’m being honest, there’s also plenty of screen time mixed in there.

My mom guilt and worry comes out in full force around this issue. I know without a doubt that too much gaming and screen time is not good, but how do we make a real change? Should we be looking for signs of gaming disorder? And even if it’s not a full-blown disorder (the word disorder sounds so serious!), how do we know when it’s a serious concern or addiction?

Preuss doesn’t get involved in debating whether or not it should be a real mental health diagnosis, but she does help offer up some guidance to these common questions parents might have.

What is gaming disorder?

It’s not like gaming disorder is a new term. The WHO has had information listed about it for quite some time. It’s just now in the news because it was officially added to the International Classification of Diseases.

The WHO defines internet gaming disorder it as “a pattern of gaming behavior (“digital-gaming” or “video-gaming”) characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”

Is internet gaming disorder a mental health condition?

The WHO goes on to say that online gaming disorder significantly impairs your judgment and impacts your life, lasting 12 months or more — so your teen’s addiction to Fortnite or another online game might not mean he has obsessive gaming disorder, but it also doesn’t mean it couldn’t lead to that.

Internet Gaming Disorder Symptoms: Signs to Watch

What signs should you look for? Preuss says here are some questions you can ask yourself about your child’s habits. Does your child seem to have a desperate need to be on his or her gaming device or electronics? Is he uncharacteristically aggressive or argumentative in relation to the game? Does she demonstrate less interest in activities she used to enjoy?

If any of these sound true, then it might be time to take a serious look at electronics and screen time. Again, you don’t have to immediately go to the mental health label, but it’s important to recognize addictive-type behavior up front.

Internet Gaming Disorder Treatment: What to Do

As a parent, what can you do to help your child? Most parents can figure out rules to set limits for their child. I know several parents who use a bribing system where their kids can earn more screen time by reading or going outside. (I’ve used this one myself, too.) Whatever it takes to get some distance between the child and the screen, do it!

I’ve found that a lot of times, this can mean telling myself to put down a device or even to stop working on my laptop as a solution. Even though my kids are both teens now, they still love it when I take time to go outside to shoot hoops or ride a bike.

If you are concerned that your child’s interest in gaming is more serious, Preuss recommends to seek out a mental health professional. “It’s just like any other addiction,” she says. “There are specialists in this area.”

What if setting limits just isn’t working?

More drastic concerns call for more drastic actions. Preuss recommends looking at devices or options that actually instill a limit on time. For me, it’s actually removing the device or electronic completely from their hands. The whole “out of sight, out of mind,” theory works for me, and it shows my kids that they’ve really pushed me to the limit. Of course, it’s not out of their minds at all — but by removing the device and actually hiding it from them, they know there’s no chance to sneak in the time.

This is usually something I reserve as a last resort because I’d much rather my kids learn how to limit and monitor themselves. But it can be part of your day-to-day regulation, too. Once kids hit the time limit, maybe their phones get put in a designated area. Or perhaps controllers are put away until the next day.

Are there any positives to gaming?

Sometimes it seems as gaming is just pure evil, but are there good parts? Preuss says yes. “If the child is showing respectful use of the devices and games they can be of great value socially and even in terms of physical coordination,” she says.

I’ve personally even used gaming as a way to spend time with my kids. It’s been a great way to connect with them by trying something out in their world. We still do stuff like hit the beach or go bowling, but it’s been an awesome experience to sit down and game with them, too.

What are the recommended limits for screen time?

There are no specific recommendations for kids older than six, but screen time should be limited as defined by the American Academy of Pediatrics. In addition, the AAP recommends focusing on activities like physical activity, outdoor time, reading, and other important day-to-day activities.

“Start monitoring children's computer, gaming, and phone use from the very beginning,” Preuss says. “Limits should be well established and expected, and if they are not adhered to then the devices removed the first time before bad habits begin.”

Where can you find additional resources?

Preuss says there are so many good resources online to learn more about obsessive gaming disorder, addiction, and gaming disorder treatment. If you need advice or help locally, she recommends using the zip code feature at Psychology Today to find a nearby therapist or mental health professional.

This post was written by Stacy Tornio, the author of The Kids’ Outdoor Adventure Book and the mom of two adventurous kids. Together, they like planning vacations centered around the national parks.

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