We take exception to the perspective and conclusions put forward by Christopher Ferguson in his piece titled “World Health Organization’s Junk Diagnosis for ‘Gaming Addiction’ Trivializes Mental Illness.” Huffington Post. 12/28/2017. We are authors of Breaking the Trance: A Practical Guide for Parenting the Screen-Dependent Child and practitioners in the fields of psychotherapy and education, respectively. There is good reason to welcome the inclusion of this diagnosis in the WHO manual called the International Classification of Diseases-11 or ICD-11.
Ferguson posits that there is no way to determine what is “normal” in terms of screen media use for children because the research on the issue is scanty or flawed. Thus it is important not to stigmatize gamers without proof that it is bad for them.
Our experience with families in our psychotherapy and education roles, moves us to argue with his contention that there is no way to determine if compulsive recreational and social screen media use is normal or abnormal or if is destructive.
First, we do know what the norm is in statistical terms. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that the average 5th grader in the U.S. is on social and recreational media eight hours plus a day with teens being on media eleven hours plus a day.
Second, contrary to Ferguson’s idea that there is a paucity of research on what screen media use does to kids, there is actually a good body of research beginning with first studies that appeared in 1999 and continuing at a robust pace since. This research suggests that children who use media at the norm suffer significant problems with concentration, personal organization, and memory. This research also indicates that children who use screen and social media too much (the AAP has suggested that more than two hours a day of screen time may be destructive) will have significant problems with social anxiety and depression.
Research on the brain using MRI technology suggests that recreational and social screen media use can impact the brain’s expression of dopamine (linked to excitement and anxiety) that is similar to the way it is impacted by a substance addiction. Very few psychiatric diagnoses have this metric—a quantifiable change in brain function linked to a condition.
The established “normal” statistic for daily use by children indicates not that there is an acceptable norm in place but rather there is an epidemic occurring. Gaming and social media have been designed to be addictive and that design is working to the tune of 21 billion dollars a year of revenue in the U.S. for the gaming industry alone.
It is a given in psychology that social contact and engagement is needed for human development to proceed normally. And important to point out that face-to-face not virtual contact is the necessary ingredient. Children who spend half of their waking time alone in a dark room accompanied only by their recreational and social media devices are not only changing their own brains in a pathological way. They are also failing to meet normal milestones for social, emotional and academic development. In evidence of this fact are the worsening rates of school absenteeism in the U.S. and poor results in most academic areas compared to the rest of the world.
We see why the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Mayo Clinic, and so many other practitioners support the new WHO diagnostic category. Contrary to Christopher Ferguson’s assertion, it does not stigmatize children who have an issue with screen media dependence. Rather, it strengthens their parents to deal with the problem, and if treatment is needed, to get insurance coverage for that part. It is also a brave act given the resistance expected from the huge gaming and social media industries and their apologists.