Teens and Technology Addiction

As a Child and Adult Psychiatrist, I have expertise in treating various mood disorders, anxiety disorders, behavioral problems, and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Additionally, I have a special interest in treating patients with technology addiction and Internet Gaming Disorder.

The Internet and use of electronics have become part of our daily lives. We use them at work, at school, for fun, and for communicating with friends and family. Research has shown that excessive use of electronics can lead to Internet Gaming Disorder, a newly proposed diagnosis. The Internet Gaming Disorder, if left untreated, can have a significant impact on the young adult’s life.

What Is Internet Gaming Disorder?
Internet Gaming Disorder is persistent, recurrent, compulsive, and excessive use of Internet-based games which leads to a decline in a person’s functioning. Internet Gaming Disorder is becoming a growing mental health concern around the world.

Research has also shown a connection between media device use and disrupted sleep due to changes in the brain’s melatonin level. Melatonin is a hormone that is responsible for sleep-wake cycle regulation and quality of sleep.

What Causes the Addiction?
There are many different causes why someone can become addicted to video games. Individuals with Internet Gaming Disorder perceive their virtual lives as more gratifying as they recreate a character with attributes they wish they had in real life. They form relationships, develop a career, and accomplish things that might be impossible (or require far more effort) in the real world. Video games may offer an escape from the reality of the physical world and into a digital world where players can assume any identity they desire.

Instant gratification can explain the potentially addictive nature of these games.

Games are designed to give users instant gratification and feedback of their progress. Over time the brain gets used to this feedback so that when the user tries to quit his or her excessive use, one of the issues they face is that life does not tend to give feedback so quickly. This becomes disappointing and so usage resumes to provide feelings of fulfillment.

Another factor that makes video games addicting is that video games trigger dopamine release in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional responses, and it enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them. This is the same pleasure response pathway in the brain that is engaged when someone uses illicit drugs or engages in online gambling.

It is important to note that individuals with Internet Gaming Disorder may have an underlying psychiatric disorder that needs to be diagnosed and treated. These include ADHD, Social Anxiety, and Autism Spectrum Disorder, just to name a few.

How Much is Too Much?
In the U.S., the average time youth spend playing video games varies between 8-14 hours per week. Most guidelines recommend a total daily screen time (which includes watching TV, cellphone, and computer use or gaming combined) of two hours. There are, however, no guidelines on what is the appropriate age for children to start playing video games and so it is at the discretion of the parents.

What Are the Warning Signs?
Significant impairment in social, family, and school functioning are key indicators of Internet Gaming Disorder. The individual isolates him-or herself and spends hours playing video games. They become more interested and involved with the games rather than real life interactions. They become obsessed and look for ways to get more time to play the game (i.e., staying up late at night or skipping classes). Any delay in gaming time can lead to significant mood impairment and behavioral changes. Decline in school grades and lack of interest in other activities are important warning signs.

Prevention and Treatment
Parents are the most important role models for their children, and being an ideal role model is the best way to prevent becoming computer/technology addicted. Setting and enforcing screen time rules is absolutely-crucial. If the child/adolescent is refusing to obey the rules and early symptoms of Internet Gaming Disorder are noticed, a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation should be considered. If there are any underlying psychiatric problems, they need to be diagnosed and treated appropriately.

In many instances these children have Social Anxiety Disorder or Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and they find Internet gaming as a way of coping with these issues.

McLean Counseling Center’s Teenager’s Emotional Health Program is focused on early detection and effective use of therapy and medication management. We have also developed a group therapy program specific for Internet Gaming Disorder. For more information, check our website at www.mcleancounselingcenter.com.

Amanjot Kaur, M.D.
Amanjot Kaur, M.D. is a Psychiatrist at McLean Counseling Center with dual training in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry along with Adult Psychiatry. She has received her advanced trainings at University of Virginia and she is a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. She sees children and adolescents as well as adults and treats variety of emotional disorders. Her particular area of interest is adolescence mental health and the area of Internet Gaming Disorder.