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Survey data, case studies suggest gaming addiction rampant among Japan's young

In this May 9, 2019 file photo, members of a high school esports club in Nagoya practice for a tournament. (Mainichi/Yuki Ogawa)

TOKYO -- The World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognized video game addiction as a psychological disorder on May 25. However, Japanese researchers have been tracking the problem at home for a number of years, with both anecdotal and survey evidence showing an alarming ratio of children suspected of being hooked on gaming.

"Second-grade primary school boy would not stop playing video games even when parents set rule limiting gaming time. When mother attempts to force the boy to stop, he verbally and physically attacks her. He also punched an acquaintance saying he was 'annoyed.'"

"Primary school sixth-grade boy wielded a kitchen knife when mother took video game away from him. Mother escaped the home with the boy's younger sibling and called the police. Mother had her son admitted to hospital on emergency basis."

These are notes on two cases recorded by psychosomatic medical specialist Akinori Masuda, 67, at his clinic in Kagoshima, southwestern Japan.

"Game addiction is laying waste to these kids' characters," he told the Mainichi Shimbun.

Video game addiction or "gaming disorder," as it is called by the WHO, disproportionately affects those aged 10 to 19. The National Hospital Organization's Kurihama Medical and Addiction Center in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo, established an "internet addiction" outpatient department in 2017, and diagnosed 167 people with the condition that year. Of that number, 107 were in the 10-19 age bracket. Two patients were under 10 years of age. And virtually all of them were hooked on online games.

A Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare research group estimated in August last year that one in seven junior high and high school students -- or some 930,000 children aged roughly 12 to 18 -- were suspected of being internet addicts. That was almost twice the total from a 2013 survey, and the condition may also be spreading in younger age groups.

Psychosomatic specialist Masuda has collected sleeping habit survey data on some 28,000 Kagoshima Prefecture primary, junior high and senior high school students over several years. The survey -- based on evaluation criteria used by the American Psychiatric Association -- for academic 2018 found that 20% of boys in the lower grades of primary school in the prefecture were suspected of being addicted to online games. The figure was 18% for boys in the higher grades of primary school. Meanwhile, of the 110 school children Masuda's clinic diagnosed with gaming addiction in 2016-2017, 23 were primary school students.

Furthermore, a survey of 5,202 parents or guardians of very young children found that more than 30% of kids aged 1 to 6 spent more than an hour per day using a smartphone. Also, more than 25% of 6-year-olds were gaming for an hour-plus daily.

Children still in the midst of their mental development are more easily stimulated by video games than adults. They become hooked on them more quickly, and unwinding the addiction is very difficult.

"The younger the child comes into contact with video games, the greater the dangers of (them developing gaming addiction), and they can get addicted very, very quickly," said Susumu Higuchi, head of the Kurihama Medical and Addiction Center. "The later you give a child access to smartphones or games, the better."

Meanwhile, the WHO's move to identify gaming addiction as a medical disorder paves the way for doctors in Japan to give testing and prescribe drugs to patients under methods permitted for conditions subject to health insurance coverage. Until now, though some medical institutions have "internet and game addiction" outpatient services, cases have been filed under alternate categories including "other" mental disorders, according to the health ministry's Mental Health and Disability Health Division.

Furthermore, in many cases facilities with no experts in this type of addiction have had difficulty diagnosing gaming disorder or devising appropriate treatment.

"With the creation of a (gaming disorder) category, we can draw up consultation manuals and the like, and it's likely that the number of medical institutions claiming they can't deal with the condition will decline. I think there will also be progress on treatment methods," said ministry mental health division official Tomomi Toyama.

(Japanese original by Sooryeon Kim and Yuki Ogawa, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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