Compulsive gaming is a mental health condition, rules the WHO
Compulsive playing of video games, such as the hugely popular 'Fortnite', now qualifies as a mental health condition under a new World Health Organisation (WHO) classification.
Yesterday the WHO, the United Nations body concerned with international public health, said classing Gaming Disorder as a distinct condition will serve a public health purpose for countries to be better prepared to identify this issue.
The move was welcomed by Irish psychologist Catherine Hallissey, who works with families where children struggle from compulsive gaming.
"This is a step in the right direction for helping those with a disorder," the Cork-based lecturer told the Irish Independent.
However, she cautioned against a "moral panic", pointing out just a tiny fraction of children were likely to have the disorder and most can play games as a hobby without showing problematic behaviour.
She also cautioned against stigmatising children with labels and said she couldn't advise as to how the Government might introduce programmes to treat the condition. "It's too new and it's quite controversial," she said, adding more scientific study would have to be done. "For the vast majority of people, it doesn't become a disorder."
Dr Shekhar Saxena, director of the WHO's department for mental health, said the WHO accepted the proposal that Gaming Disorder should be listed as a new problem based on scientific evidence, in addition to "the need and the demand for treatment in many parts of the world".
The classification comes one week after a study released by California State University showed how video games can have a similar effect on children's brains as drug abuse or alcoholism. MRI scans showed the impulsive part of the brain, known as the amygdala-striatal system, was not only more sensitive but also smaller in excessive users so that it processed the stimuli of video games and social media faster.
The studies showed games such as 'Fortnite', which is now hugely popular with Irish children as young as six, evoke the same "reward" system in the brain as with other addictions.
Ms Hallissey said signs to parents that their children may have a problem with gaming would include not sleeping at night, falling asleep in school, having relationships online that are more important than those in the real world, not eating and not going outside.
But the solutions are focused on changing a child's environment, rather than the games they are playing.
"The first thing I would do is look at family life, try to reduce stressors.
"Games are often stress blockers used to go into another world," she said.
"Number two would be build relationships with the child and three would be to expand the child's interests," she said.
Healthy outdoor activities and those that get the child to interact in the real world should be encouraged, she said.
The Department of Health said it was committed to supporting people to lead healthy and independent lives.
"This issue will be kept under active review in the department's policies and strategies to improve mental health and to promote rehabilitation and recovery from harmful addictions."