The new addiction epidemic affecting teens and young adults across the globe isn’t chemical. It’s digital.
The World Health Organization first classified gaming disorder as a disease in the June 2018 release of the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). According to the WHO, people with gaming disorder can’t control their impulse to constantly play and they prioritize gaming over their personal lives and daily activities, despite mounting negative consequences. Some go days without bathing, sleeping, or eating.
That description seems like it could swap the word “gaming” with any other addictive behavior or substance such as “gambling” or “heroin” and be an accurate representation of those more well-known addictive disorders because they all act on the addict’s brain in the same way.
“We know now from neuro-imaging studies it’s called the reward pathway. It involves several areas of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, which is the seat of executive functioning,” said Dr. Hilarie Cash, cofounder and chief clinical officer of reSTART, a digital and gaming addiction treatment center. “So that and other areas of the brain are involved in this pleasure pathway. The same thing is going on with gambling, the same thing is going on with sex addiction, the same thing is going on with drug and alcohol addiction.”
Since gaming is so common within American culture, it’s hard to fathom that a gaming addict and a crack-head are really caught in the same vicious cycle of behavior.
According to Cash, studies on the subject vary due to the lack of a standard criteria used to evaluate gaming addicts. She said that some studies estimate 1.5 percent of the general population may suffer from gaming disorder, while others are up to 13 percent. It’s important to note that some of these studies lump gaming addicts and internet addicts together, so people who exhibit similar addictive behaviors toward social media or other online activities are included in these numbers.
“We know that among young adults, the rate is up to between 13 and 19 percent for internet addiction, including video game addiction. In the 8 to 18-year-old population, it seems to be hovering about 8 to 8.5 percent in this country,” Cash said.
This disparity in age groups is due to the increased academic and social demands of going to college or leaving home and living independently. Young adults that had family regulating their usage and providing structure in the household find themselves in unfamiliar high-pressure environments that provoke anxiety or other latent mental health issues, so they use their go-to coping mechanism to escape the new painful reality.
UNF senior Cooper Daniel echoed a similar experience from his days at the UNF dorms.
“Freshman year, there was this one kid who was streaming and his dorm room sink was completely filled to the brim with gunk. He just didn’t care because he had his headset on in the corner, non-stop, all day long,” Daniel said. Streamers broadcast their gameplay to sites like Twitch, where followers can watch and interact with each other.
Daniel also recalled the time his parents had to take away his World of Warcraft account when he was in high school. He regularly skipped school to play the popular MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) with his friends and his grades began to suffer.
“It’s just such an expansive game,” Daniel said. “You can pretty much do whatever you want, wherever you want with millions of people right in front of you when you’re playing it.”
Cash maintained that games and apps are engineered to “hook” users through their structures and reward systems.
“If I find something like sports or anything like that, if I fall into it, I get really into it. But WOW (World of Warcraft) was too much. It was way too much. I couldn’t even see how bad I was getting with it,” Daniel reflected.
These days, Daniel has found a way to balance gaming with school, work, and a social life. That includes swearing off World of Warcraft for good.
“I just don’t play it anymore,” he said. “I’m a lot more casual with how I play my games now.”