Many parents are facing the reality that problematic gaming is a very real threat to the their teenage children. What was once an innocent hobby has transformed into an addiction that has overtaken their lives. Additionally, many parents are confused on what exactly problematic gaming is and what to do about it.

At Family First Adolescent Services, we are dedicated to treating the underlying issues that present themselves in our clients’ behavior before coming to treatment. We believe that the behaviors themselves, whether it is substance abuse, problematic gaming, gambling, defiance, anger issues, or risk-taking behaviors are symptoms of a deeper problem.

What is Problematic Gaming?

Gaming disorder is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as:

“A pattern of gaming behavior (“digital-gaming” or “video-gaming”) characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.For gaming disorder to be diagnosed, the behaviour pattern 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.”

Like drug addiction, alcoholism, and many other types of addiction, Problematic Gaming is a real disease with real consequences. It is also particularly harmful in teens due to the social acceptance of excessive gaming. Many parents still view excessive gaming as a “childhood” phase, and something their kids will “grow out of.”

Understanding the Problem

The rising issue of problematic gaming forces us to look at what is being gained through a virtual platform that is lacking for the adolescent in his or her life. For example, in a video game there are rules that can be relied on at all times, even the most complicated game has stability that the adolescent can rely on with complete faith. If you press this button, this happens. Success and accomplishment in the virtual world are also simplified and very stable.
This consistency is not reflected in real life because it is in-human. Relationships and society are by nature inconsistent and unpredictable. This creates frustration, anxiety, sadness, and confusion, especially in adolescents, whose minds are still developing. Gaming is a way that more and more adolescents are avoiding the difficulties of being adolescent.

Problematic Gaming and the Teenage Brain

Studies are beginning to show that problematic gaming effects the brain in many of the same ways that drug addiction and other addictions do. This includes:

  1. Triggering the sympathetic nervous systems (Fight or Flight).
  2. Increased levels of dopamine from gaming, and a “drop” after gaming.
  3. An increased feeling of needing to “escape” the real world.

Additionally, according the peer reviewed journal Frontiers, researchers have found:

“functional and structural changes in the neural reward system in gaming addicts, in part by exposing them to gaming cues that cause cravings and monitoring their neural responses. These neural changes are basically the same as those seen in other addictive disorders.”

Essentially, the brain reacts to problematic gaming the same as it would drug addiction or gambling addiction.

Signs Your Teen is Suffering from Problematic Gaming

There are many signs that your teen has a gaming problem. According to Dr. Han Doug-hyun from from Chung-Ang University Hospital in Seoul, South Korea, the top 5 signs of Problematic Gaming are:

  1. Disrupted regular life pattern. If a person plays games all night long and sleeps in the daytime, that can be a warning he or she should seek professional help.
  2. If the potential gaming or Internet addict loses his or her job, or stops going to school in order to be online or to play a digital game.
  3. Need for a bigger fix. Does the gamer have to play for longer and longer periods in order to get the same level of enjoyment from the game?
  4. Withdrawal. Some Internet and gaming addicts become irritable or anxious when they disconnect, or when they are forced to do so.
  5. Cravings. Some Internet and gaming addicts experience cravings, or the need to play the game or be online when they are away from the digital world.

Treating Problematic Gaming in Teens

In order to work effectively with problematic gaming, it is important to not get lost in trying to extinguish the negative behaviors and symptoms, but to address the underlying issues that are fueling these behaviors. If we focus too much on the symptoms we risk further alienating the teens and deepening the guilt and shame that is often already there. Instead, we look to what is lacking for the adolescent in his or her life, the underlying emotions and needs that have been unaddressed, and that are finding outlets through compulsive behaviors like gaming.

In the mental health field we refer to this approach as “Trauma-Informed,” meaning that we focus on the interrelation between unresolved early childhood trauma and later symptoms. This approach seeks to truly understand the inner world of our teen clients, not labeling them as wrong, bad or sick, but understanding that their behaviors – even as dysfunctional as they may be – are attempting to communicate a message to their environment.

Treatment for Problematic Gaming is in many ways similar to treating most other addictions. Early studies are showing problematic gaming is particularly troubling on the neuroplasticity of the teen brain. Family First Adolescent Services utilizes the brain-plasticity assessment and treatment methods founded by Dr G. Frank Lawlis, PhD, ABPP and the Lawlis Peavey PsychoNeuroPlasticity (PNP) Center.

Family First Adolescent Services Clinical Approach

At Family First, we want to listen to and understand what this message is for each of our clients. To do so, we use various treatment approaches that are trauma-informed by nature. One very exciting, cutting-edge treatment approach we use is called the NeuroAffective Relational Model (NARM). NARM is a non-regressive theoretical approach and clinical model that addresses the complexities of attachment, relational, and developmental trauma.

The NeuroAffective Relational Model (NARM) is informed by somatically-based and psychodynamic techniques that integrate physiology and psychology within a relational context – helping clients establish a healthy connection between body and mind.

The ultimate aim of NARM therapy is to improve the teenager’s emotional self-regulation while strengthening interpersonal connections. It supports the teens we work with to understand why they are doing the things they are doing and connect to a deeper place in themselves.

The benefits of NARM include:

  • Creating a context of safe and supportive relationship to access brain-building capacity of positive experiences
  • Top-Down (cognitive) and Bottom-Up (Somatic) integration of neural network
  • Stabilizing the Nervous System to support neurological connections, interconnectivity and nurturing neural deficits
  • Learning mindful awareness techniques that bring organization and regulation to impaired functioning 
  • Helping to foster the ability to make healthy choices for themselves as they resolve child-like impulse control issues and access more adult-minded thinking

As Oprah Winfrey puts it, “If you don’t fix the hole in the soul, the thing that is where the wounds started, you’re working at the wrong thing.”

Clinical Services: We utilize the following models to treat problem gaming

Family Therapy: Family therapy will help establish a healthier mode of family interaction that is grounded in boundaries and trust. Working simultaneously to heal past wounds paves the way for a brighter future.

NeuroAffective Relational Model: The NeuroAffective Relational Model™ (NARM™) is a non-regressive theoretical approach and clinical model that addresses the complexities of attachment, relational, and developmental trauma.

Comprehensive Brain Mapping: Brain Mapping is a non-invasive assessment of brain integrity that is sensitive to both subtle and gross abnormalities in brain function and is independent of cultural and ethnic factors.

Experiential Therapy: The physically active nature of experiential therapy helps clients to let their guard down in a participatory way. Experiential therapies often reveal behavioral patterns and motivations, therefore illuminating the underlying issues which need healing.

Equine Therapy: Equine therapy offers therapists and clients to identify and address a range of emotional and behavioral challenges. It is an effective form of therapy that has been proven to boost self-confidence, self esteem, and trust. Additionally, client develop trust, communication, and problem-solving skills.