Gaming disorder — in which addiction to video games becomes so extensive as to significantly impair a person’s daily activities — is now designated by the World Health Organization as a mental health condition that requires treatment just like addiction to alcohol or gambling. Recent research commissioned by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry showing that more than 30 percent of people in their teens to 20s in Japan play video games, online or otherwise, for at least two hours per weekday — with nearly 3 percent spending six or more hours doing so — should prompt a closer look into gaming addiction among young people and increased efforts to prevent them from developing gaming disorder.

In the first nationwide survey of its kind, the National Hospital Organization Kurihama Medical and Addiction Center found that the longer youths play games every day, the more serious physical and mental consequences they tend to suffer, which can disrupt their school activities, jobs, family ties and social relations.

Addiction to games must be taken more seriously because it mainly affects young people. In Japan, 1 out of 7 junior high and high school students are feared to be obsessively addicted to the internet, with boys in particular playing online games extensively. Most of the people who visit the addiction center over internet addiction are reportedly gaming addicts, many of whom are teenage boys.

Merely playing video games frequently does not constitute gaming disorder. The WHO’s latest International Classification of Diseases defines gaming disorder as a pattern of behavior 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.

The WHO states that for gaming disorder to be diagnosed, the behavior 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.

When the disorder gets serious, the addicts’ daily life becomes disrupted with no distinction between day and night. They may stop going to school or work and become withdrawn at home or start acting violently toward family members. Gaming disorder currently has no established cure, although reducing the number of hours the addicts spend on gaming is believed to be the most effective measure.

According to the survey by the Kurihama Medical and Addiction Center on 9,000 males and females aged 10 to 29, of whom it received answers from some 5,000, the largest group — 40.1 percent — play games less than an hour per weekday. But 18.3 percent said they play games three or more hours, including 2.8 percent who play six or more hours a day. The ratio of people who spend six hours or more playing games on their days off from school or work rises to 12 percent.

More than 20 percent of those who play games six hours or longer a day said they had remained withdrawn at home for more than six months over the past year. The research shows that the longer they spend playing games, the more likely they tend to be late for or absent at school or work, lose friends or become violent toward family members.

Gaming disorder is believed to have spread across the world as the use of smartphones and tablet devices became more common. A health ministry survey last year showed that 930,000 junior high and high school students nationwide, or 1 out of 7 polled, were overusing online services — double the number from the previous poll five years earlier. The survey team said the prevalence of smartphone games and social networking services was partly to blame for the surge.

In China, where some 170 million people younger than 18 are estimated to use the internet and more children are playing video games, the government last month banned youths under 18 from playing online games for more than 90 minutes per day during the week and prohibited them from playing from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. While the order requires the youths to register their own names when opening accounts to play online games, questions have been raised as to how effective the steps will be in curbing excessive gaming by youths.

It wouldn’t be practical to regulate the use of smartphones, which are the favored gaming platform for most youths, or to ban playing games altogether. The first step to prevent gaming disorder among youths should be to widely share the possible consequences that the addiction can have on their lives.

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