ADHD News & Research

WHO Classifies Gaming Disorder As a New Mental Health Condition

This week, the World Health Organization added to its International Classification of Diseases an entry for “gaming disorder,” which describes persistent, debilitating video game addiction that interferes with daily life. To many parents of teens with ADHD, this sounds far too familiar — and frightening.

June 20, 2018

Obsessive video game playing is a daily source of family conflict; it is also a public health concern, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which has added “gaming disorder” the 11th edition of its International Classification of Diseases, released Monday.

The WHO says it designated addictive video-game playing as a mental health condition in order to better study it, understand its implications, and explore therapies to treat it. Experts agree that it is virtually impossible to eradicate video gaming among teens and children; instead, the goal is to minimize the risk and the dangers associated with frequent play.

Documented negative effects associated with excessive video-game play include obesity, aggression, lack of socialization, and impaired psychological development among children. The diagnostic criteria for gaming disorder takes this a step further; it comprises three symptoms, which must be present for 12 months or longer, and significantly impact important areas of functioning such as school or work:

    • The apparent inability to stop playing video games
    • A loss of interest in and priority given to other activities that the child once enjoyed
    • Escalation of play despite negative consequences for doing so

Detachment from everyday activities sounds extreme, however many parents may struggle to distinguish potentially serious addictive behavior from more common, frequent excitement over video games, especially among tweens and teens. This is particularly true for parents of teens with ADHD, who are more likely to get hooked on video games because of the dopamine rush they deliver to ADHD brains.

According to a study conducted in 2016 and research from 2009, a significant correlation exists between addictive use of technology and comorbid psychiatric disorders including ADHD, mood disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Young, single, white men with one or more of these conditions are at particular risk for video-game addiction.

However, Dr. Joan Harvey, speaking on behalf of British Psychological Society, stated that only a small number of gamers likely should be recognized as having this disorder. She worries about an inflated rate of misdiagnosis and/or excessive parental worry following the WHO designation.

Further complicating the issue, many children with ADHD play therapeutic games designed to improve working memory, focus, and cognition, among other typically weak skills. For example, according to initial findings, Akili Interactive’s tablet-based AKL-T01 enhances attention and self-control in children with ADHD. The game is even being marketed as “digital medicine,” claiming that its adaptive algorithm stimulates certain regions of the brain.

And then there are non-therapeutic video games that offer some benefits to children with ADHD, when played in moderation. Fortnite, for example, is a 2018 gaming phenomenon. It requires players to strategize, build, and focus — all competencies that are typically weak among children with ADHD. Fortnite also offers some social connection, as it requires teamwork when choosing the group battle component. Some research suggests this type of interaction can benefit children with social skills deficits.

The message here is that common sense should prevail when evaluating your child’s frequency and intensity of video-game play. If his grades and social life are slipping, then you need to take that seriously and consider an evaluation for gaming disorder. Children and teens with ADHD are innately prone to video game addiction, thanks to the dopamine rush associate with gaming. This can make it particularly painful to break a bad habit, so begin early by setting and enforcing boundaries, and keeping a watchful eye to ensure play time does not become a debilitating mental health concern.