Miércoles 7 de Junio de 2006, Ip nº 156

Just one more
Por Sean Coughlan

What's claimed to be the first in-patient clinic for computer game addicts in Europe is to open next month, while the Priory clinic is warning about super-sized wine glasses. Are we addicted to more than we like to admit?

"There were 15 year olds being brought to us who were showing the same behaviour as 50-year-old gambling addicts," says Keith Bakker, director of an addiction consultancy in Amsterdam, Holland.

Except the compulsion of these youths - almost always boys - was playing computer games.

"We knew about drugs like crack, but we couldn't find a programme anywhere for kids like this," he says. "And we saw enormous parallels between problems with gaming and alcohol and gambling."

As such, the Smith and Jones consultancy has set up its own treatment centre - an eight-bed residential unit, where Mr Bakker says patients will need to spend four to eight weeks.

'Out of control'

The youngsters, who might have been spending almost all their waking hours playing computer games, will experience symptoms of withdrawal, he says. "There can be anxiety, panic attacks, sleep problems, dreaming about games, nightmares, shaking."

The consultancy is already seeing about a dozen "outpatient" youngsters each month who have both a drug and computer game addiction - but increasingly there are calls from youngsters who have gaming as their primary problem.

These screen obsessives are often awkward adolescents who "want to escape reality", he says. They lack social contact, their parents might be divorced or too busy to see them, they might lack confidence. In short, they need to get out more.

But Mr Bakker says that parents shouldn't underestimate the seriousness of the problem.

"This can get totally out of control. These games can be designed to keep the players going, there's no pay-off, it's like climbing a mountain with no top. They're not in their rooms playing games about collecting flowers. They're up there for 18 hours a day playing computer games about killing people."

The treatment will mean intervening in this obsessive pattern, understanding the underlying issues and changing the direction of their behaviour. But it requires a different approach from tackling drug addiction.

"You can't do a urine test to see that they're not still gaming. And if a coke addict said they wanted to go out to a club or to see people, we'd be worried about whether they'd meet a dealer. But if a gamer said he wanted to go out for the night and meet people we'd throw a party."

But adults who have never been troubled by computer-generated mayhem shouldn't be smug. Because Mr Bakker says that dependencies are much more common than we like to admit - and the vast majority of addictions of all kinds remain unrecognised.

You don't have to be a stereotypical junkie or a nighthawk in a casino to be an addict.

Mobile phones and texting can become a compulsion - leaving us feeling vulnerable and panicked when we're not able to send a message or make a call.

"My own mobile phone fell in the canal and I freaked out," he says. And anyone unable to resist text messaging is looking for the same instant gratification, the same quick fix.

Sip, glug, gulp

There are other forms of compulsion than can slip below the radar - not least because they seem so respectable and unsurprising.

What could be more the hallmark of a busy professional than opening a bottle of wine each night? It's been a tough day, you deserve it. Sounds familiar?

Except that Nick Gully, director of addiction services at the Priory clinic in south-west London, says that the overall increase in wine consumption, and the social acceptability of a bottle before bedtime, can mask more serious drinking problems.

"People have more disposable income and we work at such a fast pace - and people will come home and have a glass of wine - and there's no problem with that," he says.

But he warns that for some drinkers, behind the "just a glass after work" can be a progression to an increasing number of bottles each night.

"We're noticing more people who have alcohol problems without realising it. The normalisation of drinking in this way can conceal it."

It doesn't help that the wine glasses we're using now have been supersized to the dimensions of a small vase, he says, "more like beer glasses on stems". The alcohol volumes rise, one glass turns into several bottles and the risks of a drinking problem increase alongside.

But there are warnings against any exaggeration of the extent of addictions - particularly claims about widespread addiction to various forms of technology.

Mark Griffiths, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University, says that while there might be people who are "excessive" users of the internet or text messaging, there are very few who are really addicted.

He argues that there is a distinction to be drawn between addiction and "habitual" behaviour - and that for genuine addiction, such as for gambling or alcohol, it's a much tougher proposition.

And if people are compulsive users of online gambling sites, sitting at the screen day and night - it's the gambling that is the addiction and not the technology.

But Mr Bakker says he's watched gaming obsessives behave when they get close to the object of their desire. "It's like the coke user coming up to the dealer, you can see them start to sweat."

  01/06/2006. BBC News.