National Opinions

‘Gaming disorder’ exists as symptom of larger problems

For many, leisure time means screen time. Mom’s on social media, Dad’s surfing the web, sister is texting friends and brother is playing a shooting game.

But are they addicted? The World Health Organization recently announced that “gaming disorder” would be included in its disease classification manual, reigniting debates over whether an activity engaged in by so many could be classified as a disorder.

Experts were quick to point out that only one to three percent of gamers are likely to fit the diagnostic criteria, such as lack of control over gaming, giving gaming priority over other activities and allowing gaming to significantly impair such important areas of life as social relationships.

Those low numbers may give the impression that most people don’t have anything to worry about. Not true.

Nearly all teens, as well as most adults, have been profoundly affected by the increasing predominance of electronic devices in our lives. Today’s teens spend much more time with screens and much less time with their peers face-to-face than did earlier generations: The number of 17- and 18-year-olds who get together with friends every day dropped by more than 40 percent between 2000 and 2016.

Teens are also sleeping less, with sleep deprivation spiking after 2010. They are prioritizing time on their electronic devices over other activities. And, no, it’s not for studying: Teens spend less time on homework than students did in the 1990s.

If teens were doing well, this might be fine. But they are not: Clinical-level depression, self-harm behavior (such as cutting), the number of suicide attempts and the suicide rate all rose sharply after 2010, when smartphones became common and the iPad was introduced. Teens who spend excessive amounts of time online are more likely to be sleep deprived, unhappy and depressed.

Nor are the effects small: For example, teens who spent five or more hours a day using electronic devices were 66 percent more likely than those who spent just one hour to have at least one risk factor for suicide, such as depression or a previous suicide attempt.

In the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2017 survey of high school students, more than one in five reported spending five or more hours of leisure time a day using electronic devices. That’s about 5 million kids.

Data from a survey of 8th graders in 2016 indicates that one in 10 spent 40 hours a week or more playing electronic games. That’s about 2.5 million kids. The results are fairly similar across regions of the country, gender, race or ethnicity, and social class.

These technologies are not going away — nor should they — but we can learn to use them in more mindful ways. New Apple controls will be introduced this fall, including software allowing parents to limit the amount of time children spend on games or social media and to shut down their kids’ phones at bedtime.

In May, Google rolled out reminders for time limits on apps. A new “digital wellness” movement, partially led by former tech executives, urges people to more carefully consider how they are spending their time.

In other words: Spend your time well, because it’s all you’ve got. Use your phone for what it’s good for, and then put it down and go do the things that help humans thrive — which does not include playing Fortnite five hours a day.

Jean Ann Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, is author of “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.”