Mental health experts raise concerns over increased video game, online gambling addiction during pandemic

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Mental health experts raise concerns over increased video game, online gambling addiction during pandemic

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Mental health experts raise concerns over increased video game, online gambling addiction during pandemic

James Neal | Enid News & Eagle Nov 24, 2020

ENID, Okla. — As the pandemic and social distancing drag on, mental health experts are warning that excessive online gambling and video game usage could lead to addiction and negative social outcomes for some people.

“The COVID pandemic and need for physical distancing has forced many of us to stare at video screens for extended periods and spend less and less time with friends, family, and group activities,” said Sean Byrne, chair of Garfield County Mental Health Coalition and a local licensed counselor. “For some individuals this isolation and stress has developed new negative coping mechanisms such as online gambling and video game addictions.”

Oklahoma Association on Problem and Compulsive Gambling (OAPCG) reports about 3% of Oklahomans suffer from a gambling addiction.

Byrne said rates of online gambling and video game addictions in 2020 are less clear, but experts believe they are double to triple that of standard gambling addiction in any other year.

“It’s an area of concern, the number of individuals who are disengaging from their lives into video games, online gambling and social media,” Byrne said. “The pandemic has created a lot of unstructured, unsupervised time and gaming becomes an easy escape from the stress we are experiencing.”

Byrne is a trained gambling addictions counselor, and recently received a stipend from the University of Oklahoma School of Social Work to attend a training on video game addictions.

He said his “eyes were opened to the increasingly addictive nature of video game designs, and the proliferation of online spending on in-game items like ‘loot boxes.’”

According to Federal Trade Commission, video game loot boxes are in-game purchases, in which a player buys a reward, which is selected at random without the player knowing ahead of time the value of the reward.

“In recent years, video game loot boxes have been the subject of national and international scrutiny due to concerns that they promote compulsive or gambling-like behavior or use predatory tactics to encourage addictive consumer spending, particularly in children,” according to the FTC.

Byrne said increased use of video games, loot box features and online gambling may be fine in moderation, but with increased use during the pandemic, they pose a risk for developing addiction disorders.

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with responsible video gaming or gambling,” Byrne said. “It’s when the behavior starts becoming all-consuming. If someone gets angry when they are interrupted or have to stop, if someone starts spending increasing amounts of money or time, or the behavior starts affecting their work or relationships, that’s when it becomes a concern.”

Researchers show the majority of individuals can play video games or gamble with little to no problems, Byrne said. But for those who develop an addiction, problems including bankruptcy, theft and embezzlement, relationship problems and divorce, and significant rates of suicide are associated with addiction.

OAPCG reports nearly 20% of those diagnosed with a gambling addiction will attempt suicide at some point.

The issues of gambling and gaming addiction have only recently been acknowledged as a form of addiction, Byrne said, but new treatments and interventions are being developed to address the problem.

Byrne uses a treatment method known as DeTUR (Desensitization of Triggers and Urge Reductions), a specific form of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).

EMDR is a psychotherapy treatment originally designed to reduce the effects of traumatic memories, according to the EMDR Institute. The procedure involves several methods, including therapist-directed lateral eye movements, tapping and auditory stimulus to refocus the patient’s attention during episodes of emotional distress, according to the institute.

Byrne said the procedure has been adapted to gaming and gambling addiction to desensitize people to “the triggers that cause the impulsive or addictive behaviors.”

Research in the Journal of Gambling Studies has shown that DeTUR reduced gambling behaviors by 70%-100%, followed by a reduction in symptoms of anxiety (26%-43%), depression (5%-49%), and impulsiveness (2%-33%).

“We want people to know that there’s help available and the earlier we intervene the better the prognosis.” Byrne said. “Recognizing it as a problem is obviously the first step. These are addictions just as harmful as drug addictions, and we have to treat them as such.”

Byrne recommends individuals with concerns contact the National Problem Gambling Helpline at (800) 522-4700 or reach out to a licensed counselor or certified treatment program.

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