What others say: Like all things, video games in moderation

The World Health Organization has a lot on its plate these days. Ebola’s made a comeback in central Africa. There are still parts of the world where polio has yet to be rubbed out. The agency is looking into the beginnings of a cholera outbreak in Cameroon, and continues the fight against malaria in parts of Latin America. Next up for the world’s leading health agency? Um, video games.

The agency has just designated compulsive video gaming as a mental health disorder, adding it to the International Classification of Diseases, the WHO’s official list of medical conditions. WHO officials are calling the malady “Gaming Disorder.” The goal of the new classification: better awareness among governments, health care providers and families about the risks and ramifications of compulsive video gaming.

It would be easy to write off the agency’s decision as a nanny-group attempt to slap a label onto behavior that experts — always, experts — deem to be bad for us. Equating late nights on Minecraft with getting hooked on vodka or blackjack? Really?

But underlying the agency’s declaration is an important reminder about addiction.

It’s not that every kid, or even most kids, glued to gaming screens suffer from obsessive/compulsive Grand Theft Auto. In fact, WHO researchers say gaming disorder would apply to just 3 percent of all video game players.

But no matter what form it takes, an addiction corrodes connections to family, friends, work and much more. A line of cocaine, another double whiskey, the next spin of the wheel — alienates people from one another. With the lure of the display screen so prevalent today — the ceaseless barrage of emails, tweets, texts, Snapchats and, yes, games — some people lose sight of the richness of life beyond pixels.

That’s why a group of former Silicon Valley software developers and behavioral scientists are urging all of us to focus on “digital wellness.” The Washington Post recently reported on the group’s “digital wellness movement,” and on the backbone of that effort — the creation of apps that allow users to keep track of their screen time. Many of us might spend less time fixated by our phones if we knew that so much of our day was devoted to scrolling and tapping.

“I’m not saying that technology is inherently bad,” Duke University behavioral researcher Nick Fitz told the Post. As part of the digital wellness movement, Fitz created an app that groups smartphone notifications into batches delivered just three times daily — morning, afternoon and evening. “People should be conscious of how they’re using (digital activity),” he said, “and how it’s using them.”

The WHO designation is a cri de coeur to all of us for screen-time vigilance. The technology already exists to monitor usage of apps, video games and downloads, and to apply parental controls. Like everything else in life, digital wellness asks for moderation. Keep that in mind the next time your Candy Crush session hits the four-hour mark.

— The Chicago Tribune, June 18, 2018

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