MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — More than 75% of kids and teenagers play video games, after a recent survey found most played even more during the pandemic. But a local addiction group is warning gamers not to get carried away.

At Anoka High School, it’s game time. Some juniors and seniors are part of the “Anime and Gaming Club.”

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“You can meet people who like to play video games,” said senior Alex Purinton. “We have 60 to 70 students here at Anoka High School.”

“People play ‘League of Legends.’ One room is for ‘Dungeons and Dragons.’ There are people who like ‘Minecraft’ and also card games like ‘Magic The Gathering’ or ‘Smash Bros,'” said junior Ben Miller.

The club promoted as a healthy way to game while understanding that screen breaks are needed. That became an issue for many of these gamers during distance learning.

“I played a lot. I’ll go out and do a mile run, takes me 10 minutes, or I’ll maybe go out on a walk for an hour or just go a jog,” said junior Dylan Bartley.

“I will say I have to take a break. I’m gonna go sleep, I gonna go cook because I like to cook a lot,” said Miller.

It’s what Zach Hansen wants to hear. He’s a professor at Hazelden’s Graduate School and specializes in addictions.

“The criteria for gaming-use disorder are really modeled after substance-use disorder and gambling disorder,” said Hansen.

Hansen worries that not enough studies have been done to show the true impact of excessive gaming, especially when we were locked down and students were constantly at computers.

“Are they withdrawing from relationships? Are they withdrawing from school activities,” said Hanzen. “Are they not doing other activities that they used to find enjoyable?”

Those are questions “Jack” has asked himself.

“I must have quit that game seven to nine times,” said Jack.

He’s part of On-line Gamers Anonymous, a therapy group for people who realize they need help. Years ago he got hooked on a video game called ‘Everquest.’ He was stressed out and needed short-term gratification. Because the game didn’t have a true ending and you could keep playing, Jack became obsessed.

“I would usually play 20 hours on the weekends sometimes and then another two to four hours a night. You were talking 40 hours a week. Basically another job,” said Jack.

It affected his sleep, his job and his relationship with his wife — which eventually ended. To beat the addiction he joined the group founded by Liz Whoolly, who has her own tragic experience.

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“The game just sucked him in so bad that he left everything in his real life and became dependent on the game,” said Woolley.

She said she watched her son Shawn became obsessed with a role-playing game. She said he even quit taking medication for ADD and epilepsy.

“The professionals, they also said, ‘Well, he just likes to game, let him game, it’s the only thing he likes to do.’ I said, ‘Well that’s crazy. That’s like telling an alcoholic if you just like to drink just keep drinking because it’s the only thing you like to do,” said Woolley.

Woolley said Shawn’s withdrawal eventually played a role in him taking his own life. She used her grief to write books about the warning signs and to establish On-line Gamers Anonymous. The group meets twice weekly and provides resources for families.

“Once you cross that line you’ve got a problem. We use many AA materials and we just substitute gaming. It works. It’s the same thing. It’s like, oh wow. I can’t believe it. It doesn’t matter what the drug is,” said Woolley.

Like Woolley, Hansen is pleased the World Health Organization now recognizes gaming disorders as a stand-alone diagnosis.

But in the United States it’s considered an area of further research which likely plays a role in a lack of resources for therapy and treatment.

“It’s not an official diagnosis yet, and what the implications for that are is access for treatment and funding for treatment aren’t as much as say substance-use disorder, or their mental health disorder,” said Hansen.

In the meantime, Hansen recommends parents set screen time rules with kids and to make sure they have other activities they enjoy.

A digital detox could mean temporarily stepping away or limiting game time to a few hours a week.

“It’s not just, ‘I’m doing this to be mean, I’m doing this to punish you.’ It’s if you play too many video games this can happen, you are not going to develop skills in sports for example, or if you play an instrument,” said Woolley.

If they recognize a problem he said parents should talk with their kids away from the game, go for a drive or to a restaurant. High school clubs that promote healthy gaming habits can also help.

“Help them recognize that this is a serious problem, and your life can be so much better,” said Hansen.

Hansen said about 4% of teenagers who play video games develop an unhealthy addiction.

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