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Talk therapy helped 70% of gaming addicts break free from the screen in a new study

If you think you can’t tear yourself – or your partner, child or friend – away from Fortnite, Minecraft or Candy Crush, there might be hope in talk therapy, a small new study suggests.

Computer and internet gaming was added to psychiatrists’ diagnostic manual as a ‘condition for further study’ in 2013 and as many as four percent of gamers are hooked, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) estimates. 

The disorder is new and controversial enough that psychologists and psychiatrists are still puzzling out the best way to treat it. 

Talk – or cognitive behavioral – therapy has been suggested and, according to a Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz study, it may do the trick for 70 percent of addicted men. 

Some eight million Americans – mostly males – may qualify as ‘addicted’ to computer and internet games, but talk therapy may help them get clean of the screen, a new study suggests

Screens consume over 11 waking hours of the average American’s day.

If you play games, your apt to be on the upper end of the screen time bell curve. 

And if you’re a gaming addict, your screen may well be taking up the hours you once would’ve spent sleeping, too. 

Nearly 70 percent of Americans – or 211 million people in the US – play video games. 

Over half of them play on more than one device or platform. 

And if four percent meet the criteria for addiction, then 8.4 million Americans are hooked on video games.

That’s about the population of Virginia, plus another 400,000 people. 

As noted by the ‘psychiatrist’s Bible,’ the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th Edition (DSM-5), gaming addiction still needs better study to be fully defined. 

Currently, its established symptoms are fairly generic, and similar to those of the only other ‘behavioral addiction’ listed in the thick text: gambling addiction. 

It’s under consideration alongside the broader category of internet addiction.  

A psychiatrist or psychologist might suspect gaming addiction if a person – typically male, and young – is preoccupied with gaming, seems to need more and more time doing it to get their ‘fix,’ gets anxious, irritable or sad when they can’t game, will keep it up in spite of negative consequences, lies about gaming, loses interest in other activities, jeopardizes jobs or relationships and simply can’t quit. 

The DSM’s hypothetical criteria require that someone experience at least five of the symptoms in the span of a year. 


The American Psychiatric Association’s manual, the DSM-5, stops short of declaring gaming an official addiction, but describes a theory of it that ‘needs further research.’ 

Under its proposed criteria, a patient would have to have at least five of the following symptoms over the course of a year:   

  • Preoccupation with gaming
  • Withdrawal symptoms when gaming is taken away or not possible (sadness, anxiety, irritability)
  • Tolerance, the need to spend more time gaming to satisfy the urge
  • Inability to reduce playing, unsuccessful attempts to quit gaming
  • Giving up other activities, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities due to gaming
  • Continuing to game despite problems
  • Deceiving family members or others about the amount of time spent on gaming
  • The use of gaming to relieve negative moods, such as guilt or hopelessness
  • Risk, having jeopardized or lost a job or relationship due to gaming

Gaming addiction is tentatively categorized under internet addiction. 

It is a controversial potential addition to the DSM-5 because, like the rejected porn addiction, gaming is a behavior.

The only purely ‘behavioral’ addiction currently listed in the manual is gambling. 

Source: The American Psychiatric Association 

Treating behavioral addiction poses unique challenges compared to substance addictions, which make up the bulk of these disorders in the DSM-5. 

Opioid addiction, for example, has clear physical and neurochemical effects that can be treated (though not easily) with medication that eases withdrawal symptoms. 

For changing behavior – including behavioral addictions – the most tried, true and common treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). 

CBT is among the most common ‘talk’ therapies and helps patients identify the roots of their problematic behaviors and develop new habits and coping mechanisms. 

Only a handful of studies have put it to the test for gaming addiction, including the latest from the University Medical Center of the Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz in Germany. 

They recruited 143 men with an average age of 26 who were going to outpatient addiction clinics between 2012 and 2016 in Germany and Austria. 

All of the men met the diagnostic qualifications for internet addiction and were ostensibly being seen particularly to help them cope with gaming addictions. 

About half of the patients (72) were assigned to the CBT group, in which they were treated for 15 weeks in group sessions with other gamers and a therapist. 

The other 71 served as a control group and were told they were on the ‘wait list’ for the CBT program. 

Remarkably, 50 of the CBT group members showed signs of remission after their 15 week programs, compared to just 17 in the control group. 

CBT has been tried to treat gaming addiction before, but the study authors believe their test is the first to use rigorous research methods and find such clear results (albeit with a small number of study participants). 

Even though the study participants were of a wide variety of ages (17-52), and not necessarily hooked on the same kinds of games, ‘we found that our CBT program was effective across this range, regardless of age, comorbidity, or treatment center,’ the study authors wrote in JAMA Psychiatry. 

They still need to test the treatment strategy for female gamers, and acknowledge that the participants weren’t particularly eager to break their habits – ‘we found many of the patients to be ambivalent toward engaging in and completing treatment,’ as are many internet-addicts. 

But the study provides a glimmer of hope that even relatively short-term talk treatment can pull young men back out of their computer caves.