SAN DIEGO (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – As a medical student, David L. Atkinson, MD, learned about a group of five adult men who played EverQuest, which bills itself as a 3D online world that “offers endless excitement, adventure, battle, and discovery.” They shared an apartment in Austin, Tex., and rotated which one would hold a full-time job while the other four spent their waking hours playing EverQuest.

“It was a little concerning,” recalled Dr. Atkinson , now a psychiatrist and the medical director of the teen recovery at Children’s Health, Dallas. “ EverQuest had a button in the game where you could order a pizza without interrupting your game play. Pathological video game use can be incredibly life-dominating.”

Child neglect resulting from video game use is not unheard of, and several children in the United States reportedly have murdered one or both of their parents for taking away their video games , Dr. Atkinson said at the annual meeting and scientific symposium of the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry. “The rage that these individuals can come back with when you try to limit their video game use can be extraordinary.”

Many terms are used for pathological video game use, including problematic video game use, gaming disorder, and Internet gaming disorder, which is the term used in section III of DSM-5. Whether chronic video game use is a societal problem or an individual problem “is a very big question,”Dr. Atkinson said. “When we look at some of the prevalence data from Monitoring the Future , we have seen reductions in all kinds of substance use. We have seen reductions in teenage motor vehicle accidents and in teen pregnancy. If kids are playing video games and they’re all getting out of shape, that’s a cultural challenge. A clinician, though, may advocate against it as part of good health care.

“For instance, underage drinking in some American subcultures is normative. It doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.”

Most youth do not develop addictive behavior from playing games like EverQuest. “Substance use and gaming are different,” Dr. Atkinson said. “The amount of time spent at the expense of other things is one of the primary harms of video gaming, but financial concerns are not irrelevant. The new Star Wars Battlefront game would cost $2,100 if someone were to buy all of the available extras for the video game. Otherwise, it would take several hundred hours of game play to achieve all of these unlocked features.” While video games do not induce supraphysiologic dopamine release in the way drugs like cocaine do, the addictive potential is measured by an equation of reward versus effort. Obtaining a video game is not dependent upon social interactions, unlike drug use in states where the drug in question is illegal. In fact, the fewer social connections, the greater the risk of developing a video game use disorder.

“The perception of harm of video game addiction is very low, and parents do not consider the potential for developing an addiction before they buy a computer, handheld device, or video game console,” he said. “It is viewed as something that has to be limited … not as something that is impossible to limit.” However, when parents begin to detect problems, they often find themselves unable to control their children’s or teens’ use of gaming, according to Dr. Atkinson.

In the DSM-5, Internet gaming disorder is defined as being preoccupied with games and withdrawn when not playing them, including irritability, anxiety, and sadness. Tolerance manifests as needing to spend more time playing the game. Typically, gamers cannot reduce their use despite effort, and there is a loss of interest in other activities and hobbies, Dr. Atkinson said. They may continue to engage in overuse of games despite knowing it’s a problem; they may lie about usage, may use games to escape anxiety or guilt, and may have lost or risked lose or risk relationships or career opportunities because of games.

“Not all gamers will do all of these things,” he emphasized. “For example, some gamers have disordered use and lose interest in other things, but don’t lie about it.” DSM-5 criteria also note that the video gaming itself must cause clinically significant impairment and must not be a manifestation of another disorder.

Tools aimed at helping in the diagnosis include the Problem Video Game Playing Questionnaire , the Internet Gaming Disorder Scale , the Internet Gaming Disorder Scale– Short-Form , the Problematic Online Gaming Questionnaire , the Game Addiction Scale , and the Electronic Gaming Motives Questionnaire , which measures enhancement, coping, social, and self-gratification motives.

According to Dr. Atkinson, 90% of children in Japan, Korea, North America, and Europe play video games. However, the prevalence of Internet gaming disorder is estimated to be 1% in the United States, 1.14% in Germany, and 5.9% in South Korea. Males have higher rates of pathological video game use, while afflicted females tend to have more problems. Pathological gaming use is associated with high levels of previous truancy and few leisure activities. It’s also associated with depression, poor impulse control, narcissistic traits, high anxiety, poor social competence, and less religiosity.

“The overlap with depression is very interesting,” Dr. Atkinson said. “Gamers have a heightened rejection sensitivity, compared with nongamers. When they get rejected in a peer group or for a job, they tend to take it harder than people who don’t game. The gaming world is a place where you can be safe from rejection. If your credit card goes through, you’re allowed in.”

Anhedonia is another factor within the clinical syndrome of depression that is associated with video game use. A nationwide community sample of individuals in Korea showed that gaming and depression have their overlap most strongly with the “escape from negative emotions” model ( J Nerv Ment Dis. 2017;205[7]:568-73 ). Other associated problems include greater obesity; metabolic indicators, such as high triglycerides and cholesterol; and sleep deprivation. Chronic gamers also tend to have less social support, less health promotion, and heightened social phobia. “When you’re gaming all the time, you’re going to have less opportunity to engage in an exposure paradigm to help you get over your social phobia,” Dr. Atkinson said. “Problem gamers are also more likely to have pathological use of pornography, poor impulse control, and ADHD symptoms.”

Studies of biobehavioral characteristics of those with pathological video game use suggest that there is a decreased dopamine striatal response ( Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2017 Apr;75:314-30 ). They also suggest decreased functional connectivity across areas of the brain, including decreased resting-state functional connectivity between ventral tegmental area and the nucleus accumbens, and lower tonic dopamine firing.

Parental management training can be successful at setting gaming limits in children under 12 years of age, he said. Pathological video game use is associated with physiologic stress in the family problem-solving task. One study of a brief 3-week family therapy intervention as measured by functional MRI showed that improvement in perceived family cohesion was associated with an increase in the activity of the caudate nucleus in response to the gamer’s viewing images of family cohesion and was inversely correlated with changes in online game playing time ( Psychiatry Res. 2012 May 31;202[2]:126-31 ). “Bringing the family together may give them something to do besides gaming,” Dr. Atkinson said. “That can help them put games in a more balanced perspective.”

The largest evidence base supports cognitive-behavioral therapy for Internet gaming disorder, but there is insufficient evidence to make a clear statement of benefit ( Clin Psychol Rev. 2017 Jun;54:123-33 ). Gaming-related cognitions accounted for a large portion of the variance in treatment response.

“Does the gaming cause the thoughts? Or do the thoughts cause the gaming?” Dr. Atkinson asked. “The cognitive model of CBT would tell you there’s a bidirectional relationship.”

As for medications, bupropion has been shown to reduce online gaming in depressed individuals, and escitalopram also may be efficacious. One comparative analysis showed that there were greater effects from using bupropion than for using escitalopram ( Clin Psychopharmacol Neurosci. 2017 Nov 30;15[4]:361-8 ). Methylphenidate also has been shown to reduce online gaming ( Compr Psychiatry. 2009 May-Jun;50[3]:251-6 ).

Parents who take video games away from their children often are met with a burst of aggression. “There’s an attempt to reestablish dominance in the situation, to obtain the old reinforcer or to reestablish control,” Dr. Atkinson said. “It’s different from tapering a drug; this is something that you have to plan for. Tapering video games is difficult to do. If the kid plays longer than they’re supposed to, what do you do then? You may have a fight to discontinue the video game. That’s one of the practical problems.”

Dr. Atkinson reported having no financial disclosures.

SOURCE: Atkinson DL. AAAP 2017 .


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