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Watch out for these top symptoms of video game addiction in teens

Signs your teen's video game playing is becoming a problem

Gaming addiction is a difficult issue to address, and even more difficult to diagnose. Video games give kids an outlet to play with friends and make new ones, but it can become worrying when they don’t seem to know when to put the controller down. Defining when loving video games crosses into a disorder is tricky, but there are criteria and gaming addiction symptoms to look for.

Screen time increased by nearly 500% during the pandemic, which means you may be naturally concerned about your own teenager’s screen time. How much is too much and what are the concerning behaviors to watch out for besides the number of hours? We’ve looked at the diagnostic criteria and scientific studies so you can figure out what to worry about and what not to worry about, and what you can do if you think your teen has an addiction.

Teen playing video games
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What is gaming addiction?

According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Classification of Diseases, “gaming disorder” is defined by three criteria:

  • Impaired control over gaming
  • Increasing priority is given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities
  • Continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences

Basically, once gaming feels out of control, it becomes a disorder. The WHO further adds to the definition above by saying that for gaming disorder to be diagnosed, the pattern of behavior “must be of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning and would normally have been evident for at least 12 months.” So, it also needs to negatively impact someone’s life for at least a year to be diagnosed.

You certainly don’t want your teen’s life to be negatively affected for a year before taking action, so let’s look at what symptoms to watch for. These symptoms may develop before the gaming activity becomes diagnosable.

Teens having fun playing video games
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Gaming addiction symptoms

If you are concerned your teen is playing video games too often, these are the signs to look for to see if it could be a video game addiction.

  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when they can’t play video games, like irritability
  • Preoccupation with video games to a point that it concerns you
  • The need to spend more and more time gaming over time
  • Losing interest in other activities over time to spend more time gaming
  • Lying to you about the amount of time spent gaming
  • Using gaming to escape negative emotions
  • Inability to stop a gaming session or not to start a gaming session
  • Gaming negatively impacts areas of life like social, sleep, mental health, and academics
  • Inability to see gaming is negatively impacting life
  • Neglecting self-care like hygiene or eating
  • Acting depressed or irritable
  • Missing sleep to game
  • Isolating to game
  • Spending money the teen doesn’t have on games

It’s especially concerning the longer these symptoms go on and the more they increase. Talk to your teen and your teen’s pediatrician right away when you notice these symptoms.

Boys playing video games
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Effects of gaming addiction

Playing video games for too long overstimulates teens’ brains, which can produce too much of the hormone cortisol. This chronic stress can change the brain over time. Addiction to video games can prime the brain for other kinds of addictions, like substance abuse as well.

A six-year study published in 2020 of pathological video game players from age 15 into early adulthood showed “higher levels of depression, aggression, shyness, problematic cell phone use, and anxiety.” There are also physical health issues to the sedentary nature of playing video games.

Some of the top possible effects of excessive video gameplay include:

  • Poor emotion regulation
  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Decreased levels of compassion
  • Decreased levels of creativity
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Increased weight
  • Insomnia
  • Increased risk of ADHD
  • Desensitization to violence
  • Eye strain
  • Neck or back problems
  • Violence
  • Loss of social skills
  • Impulsive actions
Parents having a talk with their teen
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What can I do to help with gaming addiction?

Setting boundaries on gaming time is an important first step to curbing addiction. Teens will resist this and you may need professional help like therapy to help. If teens use gaming as a way to escape negative emotions, they will need to learn new healthy coping strategies, which will take time, effort, and help. Signing your teen up for a sport or another new activity to occupy their time and mind instead of gaming may help. Have patience and compassion as you support your teen on a path to a healthier lifestyle.

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Sarah Prager
Sarah is a writer and mom who lives in Massachusetts. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, National…
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