Children Most at Risk in Online Gaming

More and more people are falling into the smartphone gaming habit, spending many hours a day online. Experts say it is an addiction causing health and behavioral problems, but they are still unsure about the true nature of the disorder.

Preoccupation or Illness?

In Tokyo's Shibuya district, the famed statue of the dog Hachiko is still the meeting place of choice. But people waiting there no longer glance around to watch for their friends. Their eyes are glued to their smartphones.

An 18-year-old sitting near the statue admits his grades are suffering from gaming. "I play about 10 hours a day, even during exams," he said.

Another says he spent about $1,800 dollars on a game in one day. "I became obsessed about winning a limited-edition character," he said.

Both were in the middle of a game on their smartphones and said they like multiplayer games the most.

"I Wouldn't Feel Alive Without Games"

To try to understand how young people become addicted to online gaming, we interviewed a high school student living in the Tokyo area.

He said that in junior high he played games online 16 hours a day and seldom went to class. He said he started this pattern in elementary school after being bullied by schoolmates.

He said it was just a way to kill time at first, and that he became engrossed because of the friends he made online.

He said these "friends," whose real names and faces he did not know, became important to him. "I made friends in the gaming world that I couldn't make in real life. I played to escape my frustration," he said.

What Happened to that Gentle Child?

The boy's gaming habit began to affect his family life. He would act out and throw things at people when they asked him to stop playing.

The walls in the family home were marked with cracks and holes from his violent outbursts. A family member described what he was like in those days. "He grabbed me by the hair and dragged me around. I once had to be rushed by ambulance to the hospital. He would become enraged if things didn't go his way. I spent days wondering what had happened to that gentle boy I once knew."

The addiction also affected the boy's health. Three years ago, he was told by a doctor that he had the lung of a 52-year-old. It was attributed to the years spent holed up in a room playing online.

Japan's First Survey of Gaming Addiction

One of the few facilities in Japan specialized in treating addictions is the National Hospital Organization Kurihama Medical and Addiction Center in Yokosuka, near Tokyo. Last year, it published the country's first study of 120 people with various levels of addiction to online gaming.

Many of the respondents admitted that gaming was having a negative effect on their lives. Seventy-five percent said they couldn't get out of bed in the morning. Fifty-nine percent said it had caused them to be absent from school or work. Forty-nine percent said they were skipping meals to play, and 48 percent said their performance at work or school had suffered.

The gaming addiction also resulted in anti-social behaviors and even violence. Fifty percent admitted to destroying objects, 26 percent said they had attacked family members, and 17 percent said they had stolen money from the family.

Director of the Kurihama Center, Doctor Susumu Higuchi, authored the study. He said the definition of a gaming addict is someone who plays almost continuously for 12 months or more, and in a way that interferes with normal, daily life. Higuchi said most patients at the center are male under the age of 24. He said he is especially concerned about children who are addicted, because they have less self-control.

"When children become addicted to gaming, their lives are disrupted and their physical and mental health is affected, and this can destroy family relationships," he said. "This is a serious problem." Higuchi said the gaming industry and society as a whole needs to be aware of this situation and take steps to prevent addiction.

WHO recognized "Gaming Disorder"

Gaming addiction is also a global problem, recognized as a "disorder" in the World Health Organization's International Classification of Diseases. This could pave the way to funding proper treatment and research.

But gaming companies in the United States and other countries are critical of the WHO, arguing that online games are not the cause of addiction.

How Can the Addicted Recover?

Doctor Higuchi says gaming addicts finding it hard to suddenly stop should start by gradually reducing the time they spend playing online.

While the symptoms of this addiction have yet to be fully documented, the proliferation of smartphone use, especially among children, suggests we should all be vigilant about the risks of online gaming.