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The Difference Between Gaming and Addiction

Alexandra Tobias dialled 911. Her three month old son, Dylan had stopped breathing. She claimed that the child had been knocked from the sofa by the family dog and hit his head on the floor as a result. It was not until later, when regret, sorrow and the reality of what had happened sank in, that the then 22 year old mother confessed to police that she had been playing the Facebook game Farmville and lost her temper when her child’s crying distracted her from the game. She picked the baby up and began shaking him violently. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

At the time of this 2010 incident, the Farmville game was hugely popular with 60 million active users world-wide. Described in app store reviews as “highly addictive”, the game consisted of players becoming virtual farmers who grew crops and tended to livestock. Such was the level of addiction with the game that FAA (Farmville Addicts Anonymous) support groups began to spring up across Facebook.

The case of Alexandra Tobias is an extreme one but it shone a spotlight on gaming addiction and posed the question; why is it so hard for some young people to pull themselves away from the games that they play on their mobile phones and computer screens?

The answer is simple – gaming is addictive. Now bigger than the U.S. film industry, the gaming industry earns $66 billion annually. Game companies spend years in development and one game can cost as much as $60m to produce, so it’s no surprise that the gaming companies want to make their game the most addictive and engaging game out there using all sorts of tricks and incentives to get players hooked in the process and to ensure the profits roll in.

Gaming or Addiction?

Against this backdrop, the World Health Organisation has recently announced that it will be listing “gaming disorder” as a mental health condition in its 11th International Classification of Diseases (ICD). The latest version of the ICD is due to be published this year and describes the disorder as as a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour so severe that it takes “precedence over other life interests”.

Lots of countries are grappling to tackle the issue and the UK has responded with the first NHS funded internet addiction centre which is specifically aimed at people with gaming disorders. This is not the first time in which gaming disorder has been identified as a major public health issue. Earlier studies into the same topic date back as far as 1994 in the U.S.

It is important to note that studies suggest that gaming disorder affects only a small proportion of people who engage in gaming activities. Just because a child games for three hours a day doesn’t mean they’re addicted. Addiction is where the individual has lost the power of choice, meaning they feel like they have no option but to game.

What Should Parents Look Out For?

Under the definition, the ICD states that abnormal gaming behaviour is evidenced as a “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”.

Other symptoms may also include;

  • long game play
  • the child becoming completely preoccupied about getting back to the game
  • headaches, fatigue, and in severe cases, loss of appetite and self-imposed isolation to ensure uninterrupted play.

Advice for Parents

As parents, it’s important to make the distinction between addiction and gaming enthusiasts. A parenting expert who recently spoke out about the video game Fortnite, labelling it as “highly addictive” in light of a mother’s call to have the game banned on an episode of ITV’s This Morning, highlighted the need for parents to play their part in ensuring the mental well-being of their children when engaging with these games.

  • Every video game/ digital game has a rating. Ensure the game is age appropriate for your child by reading reviews, for example on and checking it out themselves.
  • Teach your child to self-regulate and encourage a healthy balance between screentime and other activities that don’t involve a screen. Remind them of any agreement you have made before they start playing and that sticking to this is part of the deal if they want to play next time. Let them show you that they are being smart and in control of their online use.
  • Set time limits on the amount of time per day or per week which your child can have access to games.
  • Consider your own online behaviour- kids will model their behaviour on adults.
  • Make it a rule to turn off devices at mealtimes and reconnect as a family and avoid screentime at least an hour before bedtime.

Gaming, like everything in life, needs to be enjoyed in moderation. Parents should always adopt a balanced approach when it comes to the amount of screen time you allow your child. If your child is starting to become anti-social and to withdraw from real-life social connections, spending all their time staring at a screen, then it’s time for action. On the other hand, allowing your child the enjoyment and entertainment that comes with age-appropriate gaming within reason is entirely normal too.

Posted on:

Dec 3, 2018

Michelle Garrigan (Lead Cyber Ninja)

Michelle Garrigan volunteers as Lead Cyber Ninja researcher for CyberSafeIreland. She leads the Information and Cyber Security Programme for Ulster Bank. Michelle is a mother, self- confessed cyber- nerd, speaker and blogger. When she is not having tea with teddy bears and princesses, Michelle is actively speaking about cybersecurity, helping people understand the risks and how to better protect their digital lives.