Internet gaming disorder is the name of a proposed mental health condition centered on dysfunctional, addictive Internet use. The American Psychiatric Association established a tentative set of criteria for this condition in May 2013 and called for research to test these criteria. In a study review published in June 2014 in the journal Addiction Biology, a team of Chinese researchers analyzed previously conducted brain scans to see if people who meet the provisional criteria for Internet gaming disorder have telltale changes in their brain function that indicate the presence of a form of non-substance-related addiction called behavioral addiction.
Some people develop clearly dysfunctional patterns of behavior while engaged in activities that typically don’t have a negative impact on daily life. Examples of these activities include shopping, having sex, eating and gambling. For a long time, doctors and researchers have noted that individuals involved in dysfunctional behavioral patterns can develop symptoms that closely mimic the symptoms of substance addiction, even when these individuals don’t consume substances in risky ways.
With the help of modern technologies like fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans, researchers have also identified changes in the brain function of affected individuals that, in at least some respects, mimic the brain changes typically found in people dealing with substance addiction. Together, these facts led to the creation of a new category of non-substance-related, diagnosable conditions called behavioral addictions or process addictions, which now have recognition from the American Psychiatric Association (APA).
However, the APA uses another term, addictive disorder, to describe these conditions. Addictive disorders now belong to a larger category of conditions that also includes substance-based addictions.
Internet Gaming Disorder
As of 2014, the APA has set forth official criteria for the diagnosis of only one form of behavioral addiction, a condition called gambling disorder. However, the organization specifically identified Internet gaming disorder as the next potential candidate for official status. The disorder has nine proposed symptoms: an obsession with Internet “gaming,” the onset of a withdrawal syndrome when access to the Internet is curbed, a need to keep escalating the amount of time spent on the Internet, a repeated inability to limit Internet participation, a declining desire to pursue other interests, reliance on Internet use to avoid unwanted emotional states, use of deceit to mask one’s level of Internet participation, the experience of significant negative consequences stemming from Internet participation and the continuation of heavy Internet involvement after exposure to such consequences.
Changes In Brain Function?
In the study review published in Addiction Biology, researchers from China’s Sichuan University analyzed the results of 10 previous studies designed to see if people affected by the proposed symptoms of Internet gaming disorder undergo the characteristic brain changes associated with behavioral addiction. All of the studies under consideration used fMRI exams, which give a real-time view of the ebb and flow of brain activity. The researchers undertook their review, in part, because no one had conducted such a large-scale analysis before.
People affected by behavioral addiction commonly experience changes in the function of a part of the brain called the prefrontal lobe or prefrontal cortex. This brain area is essentially the center for the higher-level mental skills that give humans the ability to do such things as think logically, make plans, establish and maintain control over momentary urges and make decisions about the costs and rewards of any given action. During their analysis, the Sichuan University researchers looked for indications that people with symptoms of Internet gaming disorder experience damaging changes in their prefrontal lobe function.
After completing their work, they concluded that people affected by the proposed disorder do indeed experience such changes. Specifically, they lose some of the ability to regulate their behaviors and carry out accurate risk/reward assessments. In addition, the researchers concluded that some of the changes they observed occur with greater frequency as the amount of time spent on the Internet goes up.
Overall, the study’s authors believe their analysis identifies altered function in the brain’s prefrontal lobe as a characteristic of individuals affected by the proposed symptoms of Internet gaming disorder. In turn, based on this finding, they believe that their work reinforces the legitimacy of establishing Internet gaming disorder as a diagnosable form of behavioral addiction or addictive disorder.
Learn More About Process Addictions