Internet use is part of teens’ everyday life and banning it, or even setting firm limits on use, can seem one task too many for the parent who after all has to pick her battles. There may be many issues – schoolwork, curfews, domestic chores and standards of behaviour – that take immediate priority; and most parents prefer reducing areas of conflict in order to preserve some joy in their relationships with teens.

Yet the World Health Organization’s decision to include gaming disorder as a mental health condition in the 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases has been welcomed by those parents who feel their concerns are now vindicated, and, more important, hope that they might now receive professional support. 

Last week, as the WHO’s position on gaming disorder was reported, Vanessa Feltz discussed this issue on her morning programme. The discussion focused on a report in the Telegraph of a mother who described her fifteen-year-old son as suffering from a gaming addiction so severe that he was unable to attend school, with accompanying problems of social isolation and depression. Feltz invited me on the show, and I took the perspective of a parent locked in battles with a teenage son or daughter’s gaming obsession, where reason, reward and punishment alike seemed ineffective, and a parent faces her worst nightmare: the sight of a child set on a path to self destruction. Feltz, on the other hand, voiced robust common sense along the lines of, “Surely,” and here I paraphrase her points, “the parent, the adult in control, can solve this by taking away the computer or tablet.”

Indeed, for most parents of most children, reasonable guidelines provide adequate control. Recommendations include designating a specific computer for gaming (and a different one for homework), restricting computers in bedrooms, and ensuring a couple of hours each evening of offline time.  Gaming disorder, a clinical condition that requires a professional diagnosis, is rare, but when it occurs, it terrifies parents, and common sense often seems useless.

If the addiction we discussed had been to drugs or alcohol, I doubt that a robust common sense view would have such traction. The symptoms of gaming disorder are similar to those of other addictions: the condition persisted for a period of time, at least several months; gaming becomes the highest priority and crowds out previous interests and activities and even relationships; the behaviour escalates even when its consequences are obviously and severely negative; and others’ attempts to limit gaming are met with anger, aggression and anxiety. But while other addictions have gained medical status, sometimes being equated to illnesses such as cancer, gaming and other Internet related addiction (including internet porn) is often seen as proof of parental weakness. The isolation and shame of an addict spread to the parent who cannot meet the expectation that she can “fix” this disorder.

Official classification of gaming disorder is likely to allow easier access to treatment, but most addiction therapies are geared towards those who themselves seek help. A common conundrum parents face is that a son or daughter thinks their only problem is a parent’s unhappy with the habit that makes them happy; such children may not cooperate with treatment, and this reluctance presents a parent with another significant challenge that will not go away.

When a parent cannot rise to this challenge there is often a charge of “collusion” – a term used when someone close to an addict may sincerely believe he or she is working to control the child’s (or partner’s) addiction, but who (often unconsciously) facilitates it.  All that uninterrupted time a parent has when a child is gaming, combined with the fantasy that, tucked away in the home bedroom, the child is somehow “safe” make weaken a parent’s sense of urgent resolve.  Yet parents are rarely lazy when alarmed by threats to a child’s wellbeing. It is more likely that a parent’s complex empathy with a child’s sense of his or her own needs (even when pursuing those “needs” is damaging a child) induces confusion and paralysis. Or, a parent faces another danger – that of totally destroying the relationship as two opposing parties set up camp. 

Nevertheless, significant power does lie with a parent. A crucial first step is to explore whether the gaming is masking other problems. Perhaps a child finds making friends difficult, and feels wrong-footed in social situations. Perhaps a child feels sub-par at school; while gaming he or she feels empowered. Imagine how a child or teen feels in this situation when the grown ups shake a finger and insist, “It’s simple; just stop.”  Even removing the computer, while effective as prevention, will, at this point, be futile. There are computers at school and at libraries and at every friend’s home; the addict will find one. 

If help is to be made available to a child who suffers from a gaming disorder (and fortunately the number is low) then this help must include guidance to a parent’s love and care.

Some useful websites for parents.