The compulsive overuse of internet and video gaming is leading to a worrying number of young Australians presenting to health professionals with isolation and anxiety issues.
Robert Mittiga, owner and Director of the GATS program, a private treatment centre for addictive disorders, says the number of teenagers seeking help for gaming addiction appears to be increasing by about 150% per year.
Added to the mix of clients with alcohol, drug and gambling addictions, his South Australian clinic is dealing with young people whose lives have been severely impacted by the extreme use of computer, Xbox or PlayStation games.
"We have definitely noticed a huge rise in the past three years," says the psychotherapist and addiction specialist, who treats people from Australia and overseas. "I don't even know if that's a true indication of the problem as we can only tell you about the people seeking help, usually when there is a crisis going on."
In July this year a Taiwanese 18-year-old died after spending 40 hours without food or sleep at an internet cafe, playing the popular action role-playing game Diablo III. This followed the death seven months earlier of another teen extreme-gamer in Taiwan and a 20-year-old UK man last year.
Fortunately, deaths from gaming remain rare. However, Mittiga says real dangers arise when adolescents and young adults become socially isolated from friends and family due to an obsession with gaming. As they withdraw increasingly from the real world, a toxic cocktail begins through a lack of sleep, little or no food and stimulants including energy drinks.
Mittiga says if parents are concerned about their teenagers' gaming practices, they should look out for the following warning signs that may indicate a problem:
- Grades slipping
- Isolation from peers
- Spending increasing amounts of time at home
- Lacking motivation to do other activities such as sports or socialising
- Having sleeping problems (it disturbs sleeping patterns in teenage brains)
- Anger when you try to take away the game – almost like withdrawal symptoms
In 2010 the University of Adelaide's School of Psychology released a paper titled "Recent innovations in video game addiction research and theory" providing an overview of research conducted into the psychological dependency on video games.
The authors, Daniel King and Paul Delfabbro, said recent survey and case study evidence suggested that while male adolescents were at greater risk of developing problems with their computer use, video game addiction "was not unique to any particular demographic of users". They say the introduction of casual puzzle games, portable hand-held games, and online multi-user games has attracted many females to video games.
Fourteen-year-old Kieren* excelled at soccer, did pretty well at school and had a normal social life for his age. When an injury prevented him from playing his favourite sport and training for a season, he started spending a lot of time on computer games instead. His sporting friendships started to drop off, he put on a bit of weight and his self-image became very poor.
By the time his parents brought him to see clinical psychologist Nerolie Muller, computer gaming was dominating his life. He was socially isolated, anxious and depressed.
"It wasn't solely gaming that made him depressed – it was all the losses he experienced and how he now saw himself," says Muller of Kids and Co in the Blue Mountains. "He was losing sleep playing games late into the night, having commitments with friends all over the world to play at different times. While he was trying to regain a sense of purpose through gaming, the rest of his life was falling apart."
Muller connected Kieren with a physiotherapist to help him get him back in shape and put measures in place to reconnect him with real friends instead of online ones. Balance was slowly restored.
"Kids often don't realise just how much time they are spending on these games," says Muller, who treats more boys than girls affected by excessive computer and video game use.
"A lot of video games have timers on them and when you point out to young people that this week they have spent a total of 25 hours playing games, that might be a wake-up call. Sometimes it's about helping young people get a balance back in their lives – having real social interaction in the real world with peers, reading books, playing and listen to music."
The research report found among children and adolescents, risk factors for problem gaming included a lack of:
- parental supervision
- structured activities in the home environment
- access or encouragement to participate in physical activities
- unrestricted access to money to spend on video game activities
"Children with video game machines in their bedroom are also more likely to play video games unsupervised and for more hours each week than those children with supervised and restricted access," the paper revealed.
Mittiga says on weekends parents are often recovering from their busy working week and sometimes it's much easier to let their children watch TV or play computer or video games while they are relaxing.
"Parents need to make sure they are looking after themselves so that they can be there for their children – emotionally and not just physically," he says.
So what are parents supposed to do when they are away from home working and their teenagers are home alone – hide Xbox controllers, or disable computers?
Mittiga says hiding things is just like an alcoholic locking the alcohol cupboard: it's not going to solve the individual's problem.
"You need to get to the root of the problem. Why does that kid have the need to be escaping constantly?" he says.
"He's not developing emotionally spending three or four hours a day or more on these damned games. It's not about the games; it's about the individual and their relationship with these things."
Muller explains when the use of these fun and enjoyable games get out of control, it's often not computer or video gaming that caused the problem.
"Maybe they have anxiety over school work or perhaps there are friendship difficulties," she says.
"They feel at least the gaming is fun and while they are doing it they don't have to be worried about being bullied at school or whatever is going on. If parents recognise their child is really irritable a lot of the time, there's a drop-off in friends and other activities and they've tried all the sensible stuff but it's not working, it's time to call on a professional for help."
Julie Nance is a freelance writer and contributing journalist for Women's Agenda.