When most people hear the word addiction, they think of drugs or alcohol, but now, video game addiction is recognized by the World Health Organization as a mental disorder
Psychologists say children and young adults are struggling with Gaming Disorder.
"We're essentially seeing it be a drug of choice for lots of young boys," said Dr. Nicholas Kardaras.
Kardaras is an addiction psychologist and the founder of Omega Counseling. He also wrote the best-selling novel 'Glow Kids'.
Kardaras says video games are designed to get kids hooked at a young age. Gaming triggers feel good hormones in the brain which creates a high that psychologists compare to drug use. "Cocaine raises dopamine levels it's what's called dopaminergic. Certain activities raise dopamine levels like: sex and gaming," Kardaras said.
Brain imaging research also shows excessive gaming can damage children's brains because they're not fully developed yet. "Your executive functioning is compromised so, you're more impulsive, your consequential decision making is affected. So, people who have a substance abuse problem are more prone to act impulsively because the chronic behavior impacts their brain functioning," Kardaras said.
Barbara McVeigh is a mother of two who lives in California. She says her son became addicted to gaming at age six. "This rage he was in -- I would akin it to someone like a heroin addict," McVeigh said describing her son's behavior at its worst.
She said she noticed a change in him after her son's entire class was given iPads at school. "For whatever reason, these games were really pulling him in," McVeigh said.
She said once her son started playing he refused to stop. The binges lasted for hours and when she tried to take it away, he erupted into violent rages. "I had to call the police 20 times on my own son because of the hitting and kicking," McVeigh said.
After seeking help from more than a dozen psychologists who didn't know how to treat her son, McVeigh ultimately connected with Dr. Kardaras who helped with treatment. "If parents just take away the game, children can go through withdrawal. I've seen the exact physical withdrawal of gaming that I've seen with substance addiction," Kardaras said.
Kardaras has worked with more than 1,000 young gamers including Tyler Kinney who is now 21-years-old. "I first started gaming when I was very young," Kinney said.
Tyler's father Stephen Kinney said he and his wife Gwen stepped in when his son's behavior became unhealthy. "He wasn't getting outside enough. When we saw it was really impacting Tyler's physical health that's when we had to step in," Mr. Kinney said.
Tyler started abandoning his hobbies of running and playing soccer and eventually dropped out of college. "My grades started to slip. I started to default on gaming instead of going out and doing other things," Kinney said.
It's that desire to stay secluded inside and game instead of getting out and interacting that Dr. Kardaras says is affecting the social skills of an entire generation. "What a relationship requires is eye contact and face to face. Otherwise you don't get the same psychological benefit from it so, kids are more isolated and subsequently they're getting more depressed," Kardaras said.
Now, Tyler is taking big steps by entering an outpatient treatment program at Omega Recovery with Dr. Kardaras. It includes a digital detox and healthy reintroduction of technology. "My goal is to find a more stable and healthy relationship, gaming less and focusing more on healthy outlets," Kinney said.
Barbara McVeigh said even though she drained through her entire savings and retirement to help her son's addiction, she wants other parents to know there is hope. "As a parent, I'm so overwhelmed. This is a full-time job just that alone. Nothing gets me angrier knowing there is some punk somewhere in the world who has just profited off the collapse of my family," McVeigh said.
Since undergoing treatment with Dr. Kardaras and moving to a low-tech school, McVeigh said her son is doing much better. "He's in the top of his class right now. He's a happy kid. He still games, but it's much more under control," McVeigh said.
According to the Pew Research Center, 97 percent of kids are gaming and kids are in front of screens between nine and eleven hours a day. That includes: smart phones, school computers and gaming consoles. Of the 97 percent of kids who game, ten percent of the population is impacted by addiction.
Dr. Kardaras suggests delaying the onset of screen time until the age of ten to limit the chances a child becomes immersed and eventually addicted to technology.