NHS opens clinic to help children addicted to computer games

‘Gaming disorder’ is now deemed a diagnosable mental health problem and GPs will be able to refer young people suffering from the condition

This is an edited version of an article first published by The Guardian

The NHS is opening the country’s first specialist clinic to treat children and young adults who are addicted to playing computer games such as Fortnite, Candy Crush and Call of Duty.

Staff will help those aged 13 to 25 whose lives are being debilitated by spending countless hours playing games. GPs and other health professionals in England can refer addicts to the service and treatment starts next month. It has been set up because of concerns about the escalating number of children and young people whose heavy use of computer games is causing problems for them – especially regarding their mental health.

The clinic will be part of the National Centre for Behavioural Addictions in London; referred patients will be able to attend in person, or have an online consultation using Skype.

“Health needs are constantly changing, which is why the NHS must never stand still. This new service is a response to an emerging problem, part of the increasing pressures that children and young people are exposed to these days,” said Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England.

The service will be hosted by the Central and North West London mental health trust and be located alongside the National Problem Gambling Clinic. Clinical psychologists, mental health nurses, therapists and psychiatrists specialising in treating children and young people will work with patients to help tackle their addiction.

Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognised ‘gaming disorder’ as a medical condition for the first time. It included it in its latest revised edition of the International Classification of Diseases, which tells doctors worldwide what conditions the WHO has accepted as diseases.

“Gaming disorder is a mental health condition which can have a hugely debilitating effect on people’s lives, both for patients and their families who can be left feeling utterly helpless in the wake of their loved one’s addiction,” said Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, director of the NHS’s new Centre for Internet and Gaming Disorder and the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ spokeswoman on behavioural addictions.

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“Gaming disorder is not a mental illness to be taken lightly. We are talking about instances where someone may spend up to 12 hours a day playing computer games and can end up becoming socially isolated and lose their job as a result.”

 An explosion of addiction

Countries worldwide are trying to cope with an explosion in gaming and internet addiction. For example, South Korea has banned children under 16 from using online games between midnight and 6am and, in China, the technology firm Tencent has restricted the number of hours children can spend playing its most popular games.

Fiona Smith, professional lead for children and young people at the Royal College of Nursing, said, “As technology becomes more accessible, and more advanced, it’s unsurprising that more and more young people are, potentially, being negatively affected by excessive screen time to the point where it affects their daily lives.

“The damage of addiction of any kind goes beyond the child or young person, causing distress to parents, families and friends.”

She endorsed Stevens’ call for gambling and internet firms to pay a levy to help fund NHS mental health treatment for those who become addicted to using their products.

“Whilst the NHS has a duty of care, and is adapting to these modern challenges, it and taxpayers can’t foot the bill alone. Online gaming firms and global social media firms – which make millions of pounds of profit – must take more responsibility by keeping their platforms safe and introducing safeguards to reduce the burden on the health service.”

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