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Internet giants are ‘cashing in’ on addiction, says NHS boss

Image credit: Dan Grytsku | Dreamstime.com

The chief executive of the NHS has accused internet firms of ‘cashing in’ on addiction, as he announced plans to offer treatment to children with disorders caused by online and video gaming.

As part of the new service offered by the NHS, dedicated healthcare professionals will be in place to accept referrals for young people aged between 13 and 25 who are seriously addicted to video games.

The service, which is part of the NHS-funded Centre for Internet and Gaming Disorders, will include treatment over Skype, explained Simon Stevens, chief executive of the NHS.

“Health needs are constantly changing, which is why the NHS must never stand still,” Stevens said. “This new service is a response to an emerging problem, part of the increasing pressures that children and young people are exposed to these days.”

However, he warned that the NHS “should not be left to pick up the pieces” when young people suffer from gambling or video game addictions.

“Gambling and internet firms have a responsibility to their users, as well as their shareholders, and should do their utmost to prevent rather than cash in on obsessive or harmful behaviour,” he declared.

NHS England highlighted many other countries that are grappling with the issue of gaming and internet addiction. For example, in South Korea, the government has introduced a law banning access for children under 16 from online games between midnight and 6 in the morning.

Meanwhile, in Japan, players are alerted if they spend more than a certain amount of time each month playing games. Whereas in China, internet giant Tencent has also limited the hours that children can play its most popular games.

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes “gaming disorder” as a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour so severe that it takes “precedence over other life interests” – an in December 2017, it was announced that gaming disorder was to be classified as a mental health condition for the first time.

Furthermore, in June 2018, WHO said it had accepted the proposal that gaming disorder will be officially listed as a mental health issue on the basis of scientific evidence.

Symptoms include lack of control over gaming and placing it as a huge priority at the expense of other things, including relationships, social life and studying.

“Studies suggest that gaming disorder affects only a small proportion of people who engage in digital- or video-gaming activities,” WHO stated.

“However, people who partake in gaming should be alert to the amount of time they spend on gaming activities,” the organisation advised, “particularly when it is to the exclusion of other daily activities, as well as to any changes in their physical or psychological health and social functioning that could be attributed to their pattern of gaming behaviour.”

Claire Murdoch, the national mental health director of the NHS, said that compulsive gaming and social media and internet addiction is “a problem that is not going to go away when they play such a key part in modern life”.

“The NHS is rising to the challenge – as it always does – with these new, innovative services, but we can’t be expected to pick up the pieces,” Murdoch added.

“Tech giants need to recognise the impact that products which encourage repeated and persistent use have on young people and start taking their responsibilities seriously too.”

There is still widespread debate as to whether technology is really an addiction, with some psychologists stating that by talking about addiction, we’re succumbing to “techno-panic”.

In January last year, speaking at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, former Prime Minister Theresa May put pressure on tech companies, demanding they should take responsibility for the social impacts of their products.

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