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Know a video game addict? 5 steps to help get them off the couch

HOUSTON – The World Health Organization (WHO) is taking a surprising look at video gaming. They're looking at whether they should classify it as an addiction.

According to the Entertainment Software Association, 150 million Americans play video games. The good thing is, a lot of those people said it helps them connect with friends and family, but WHO said people who begin increasing their priority in gaming to the extent that it takes precedence over other interests may have a gaming disorder.

Houston family and sex therapist Emily deAyala said it's true that gaming is a problem if gamers continue to make it a priority despite negative consequences, but calling it an addiction is surprising unless you consider the source. She explains the WHO looks at trends across the globe and says other countries are seeing gaming as a bigger social issue.

“To the extent that in some countries they've established laws that teenagers can't play between 12 and 6 a.m. Other countries have installed alarms to go off on games to alert you when you've been playing more than a set number of hours just to kind of help people learn to manage it,” she said. “Here in the U.S., there are certainly individuals that I think would fall under the diagnostic but we probably don’t see it as much of a large social issue as other parts of the world have.”

In fact, she said gaming could have benefits.

“It can help with memory, attention, even hand-eye coordination in a different way that playing actual sports can and really, they haven't found kids that spend more than one hour a day suffer any true negative consequences but as a general rule of thumb, I think it's important for parents to make sure that their kids have completed homework, that they have dinner together, and ideally spend some time outside before holing up and playing video games,” deAyala said.

However, she admits to having many patients who feel their child or loved one's gaming is hurting them.

“I've worked with couples in which one person sort of gets hooked on this gaming thing and they'll spend an entire weekend holed up playing video games. neglecting family time, time with the kids and so it can be a difficult pattern to break and one that can certainly have some detrimental effects,” deAyala said.

For those patients, she encourages limiting gaming with these steps:

1. Nip it in the bud. The longer any behavior is allowed to persist, the harder it is to make changes. If you begin to notice that your teen or partner is spending more and more time behind the gaming console, be sure to speak up.

2. Start with gentle expressions of concern and then get more direct. Sometimes all someone needs to hear is that you miss spending quality time together and you'd like to make sure you don't lose that. If you feel they aren't getting the message, move on to more direct forms of communication.

For example, "I've noticed that you're spending more and more time playing video games. This is making me feel neglected and unloved. While I understand everyone needs down time, we also need to prioritize our relationship. I'd like to ask you to limit the amount of time you spend playing." 

Notice the word, "limit." You don't want your partner to feel that you're totally taking something away from them.

3. Be empathic. Express that you understand the importance of having downtime and know that games can be a lot of fun. Starting off a request for change with communication of empathy lowers defenses of the person on the receiving end.

4. Offer a replacement behavior. Remind your partner of the things you used to enjoy, and suggest repeating some of the fun dates you had before. 
Alternatively, suggest a hobby that you can try together like a salsa dancing class. 

5. For kids and teens, set limits and expectations. No games until homework, family time, and sports or exercise have been completed.

Remember that teens can't understand long-term consequences of behavior the way adults can. That's why it's up to the parent to stay in control. 

Also remember that not everything about gaming is bad. Encourage your teen to invite a friend over to play in person. At least this way, there is a social component. If they still resist, take the game away. 

6. Therapy and counseling can be especially beneficial if you're feeling helpless or stuck. Reach out to a therapist to help you and your partner or to an adolescent specialist for guidance on setting boundaries with your teen.