Here is a piece of information for parents who do not have enough to worry about: when it comes to video game addiction, one definition of an “extreme player” is a teenager who is glued to his or her screen or console for an average of 45 hours a week.
That, however, is just an average. It gets much worse. At the outer fringes of “extreme” are youngsters who are gaming for up to 18 hours a day, who won’t to go to school because it doesn’t engage them, but who use artificial highs of various kinds to keep mentally alert for the gaming challenge.
So all-consuming and compelling is the fantasy world they inhabit that addicts typically neglect themselves and those around them, “forget” to eat or to wash, sometimes refuse to leave their bedrooms or even to engage with friends who are not similarly enthralled.
No matter how they look at it, real life just doesn’t compare with the buzz of what’s on offer online.
Most frightening of all, says a new report in the Netherlands, is the age group that's increasingly becoming caught up in the complexity of massive, multiplayer online role-playing games, otherwise known as MMORPGs – games such as World of Warcraft (often known by initiates as World of Warcrack ) or EverQuest (also known as Never Rest ).
Up to three years ago it used to be predominantly teenagers of 15 or older who were seeking psychological help but now it’s often preteens as well, says Jan Willem Poot, director of the Yes We Can group of clinics, which helps adolescent gamers and their families to fight addiction.
“Some of the children coming to us for treatment are just 10, 11 or 12, and even at that young age are pretty extreme in their obsession – so that it’s a positive development when either they or their parents finally realise they are just not coping with the rest of their lives.”
What's happening to these 10- and 11-year-olds is that they are becoming socially isolated just when they should be learning to cope with the challenges of everyday life in the company of their peers.
This is no flash in the pan.
Last May, video game addiction was added to the psychiatrists' bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders .
While only a tiny percentage of enthusiastic teenage gamers are addicts, if left untreated that social isolation can lead to mood swings, diminished imagination and a “hyper-focus” on gaming to the exclusion of everything else.
Gamers say it’s not just the intricacy of the games or the role-playing element that makes them potentially addictive, it is also because there is regularly no ultimate goal, no finish line, the games are essentially impossible to win – so the adrenaline-fuelled challenge is never-ending.
Reaching the highest level of the games requires hundreds of hours of play and, just when you think you’ve reached your maximum capability in a certain role, the game changes – which is why some players have several games on the go at once, playing with a different character in each.
The Netherlands – no stranger to leading the way on difficult social issues – opened the first residential clinic in Europe for the treatment of compulsive young online gamers in Amsterdam in 2006.
The latest Dutch report has collated statistics from eight addiction clinics nationwide and finds that while the number of youngsters being treated for computer game addiction was 256 in 2011, that figure rose to 426 the following year – an increase of 66 per cent.
At the same time, research by Erasmus University teaching hospital in Rotterdam suggests about 1.5 per cent of boys between 13 and 16 are addicts. That’s about 12,000 children who play for an average of about eight hours a day – in the Netherlands alone.
Girls can become addicted too, of course, but researchers at Stanford School of Medicine have demonstrated that the part of the brain that generates rewarding feelings is more activated in men than in women during video-game play.
“Part of the problem is that parents and teachers are not well enough informed and don’t take this seriously enough,” said Marius Naaburs, a team coach at a youth clinic that tackles the problem.
“They think it’s just a phase the kids are going through and that when you tell them to pull the plug out and put it away the problem is gone.
“But it’s not that simple: this is a problem on a par with alcohol or drug addiction – but with a much, much, younger age profile.”