With schools and playgrounds being shut down, kids are turning to video games and online entertainment as an alternative form of recreation. More than ever, people seek a form of escape from the harsh reality of current events — and the fictional worlds of video games serve as the perfect refuge.
However, as we become more reliant on video games and Internet use during the pandemic, a new public health threat emerges: Internet gaming disorder.
In 2018, the World Health Organization classified Internet gaming disorder as a diagnosable condition in the International Classification of Diseases. According to the WHO, gaming disorder is a pattern of uncontrollable and compulsive gaming behavior that takes place for at least 12 months.
People who suffer from gaming disorder allow video games to take precedence over all other aspects of their life, and although they may be facing significant problems with friends, family, school or work, they cannot stop gaming. An estimated 10 million people worldwide currently suffer from Internet gaming disorder; with the increased presence of technology in our lives, this number will only continue to grow.
So, how exactly do we become addicted to gaming, and how does Internet use affect our health?
As Internet gaming disorder is a relatively new condition, researchers are still trying to uncover the complex mechanisms behind it. However, many studies have already shown a clear linkage between gaming disorder and the brain reward system, which is also a key component in many other forms of addiction.
With every “win,” “kill” or “gain” in a video game, we are rewarded with instant gratification as dopamine floods our brain. According to a study published in Nature, playing video games releases similar amounts of dopamine as drug use. Dopamine is known as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, as it activates our brain’s reward system and reinforces pleasant memories of certain behaviors.
This motivates us to repeat the behavior over and over again, beginning a cycle of addiction (or as we know it, the brutally false statements of “just one more round”). However, as this reward system is continuously activated, it can also become overstimulated, leading to tolerance.
Tolerance is essentially when our brain no longer reacts as strongly to normal levels of dopamine and higher levels of dopamine are required to feel the same sensation of satisfaction. In other words, each “win” grows less and less rewarding, so our time spent gaming increases exponentially.
Slowly yet surely, the circuitry of our brain becomes indistinguishably intertwined with the strings of code behind video games, and untying these knots can take years, leaving irreversible damage.
Internet gaming disorder is a serious public health issue that affects millions of people worldwide. Especially in a time when technology is so prevalent in our lives, it’s more important than ever to be mindful of our Internet and video game consumption. Maintaining a balanced digital diet is key to staying healthy and preventing ourselves from the dark cycle that is Internet gaming disorder.