Video games may look innocent, but they can be as addictive as gambling or drugs - and just as hard to kick, says Keith Bakker, director of Amsterdam-based Smith & Jones Addiction Consultants.
Bakker already has treated 20 video game addicts, aged 13 to 30, since January. Some show withdrawal symptoms, such as shaking and sweating, when they look at a computer.
His detox program begins in July. It will run four to eight weeks, including discussions with therapists and efforts to build patients' interests in alternative activities.
"We have kids who don't know how to communicate with people face-to-face because they've spent the last three years talking to somebody in Korea through a computer," Bakker said. "Their social network has completely disappeared."
It can start with a Game Boy, perhaps given by parents hoping to keep their children occupied but away from the television. From there, it can progress to multilevel games that aren't made to be won.
Bakker said he has seen signs of addiction in children as young as 8.
Hyke van der Heijden, 28, a graduate of the Amsterdam program, started playing video games 20 years ago. By the time he was in college he was gaming about 14 hours a day and using drugs to play longer.
"For me, one joint would never be enough, or five minutes of gaming would never be enough," he said. "I would just keep going until I crashed out."
Van der Heijden first went to Smith & Jones for drug addiction in October 2005, but realized the gaming was the real problem. Since undergoing treatment, he has distanced himself from his smoking and gaming friends. He says he has been drug- and game-free for eight months.
Like other addicts, Bakker said, gamers are often trying to escape personal problems. When they play, their brains produce endorphins, giving them a high similar to that experienced by gamblers or drug addicts. Gamers' responses to questions even mirror those of alcoholics and gamblers when asked about use.
"Many of these kids believe that when they sit down, they're going to play two games and then do their homework," he said.
Unlike most other kinds of addicts, most gamers received their first game from their parents. "Because it's so new, parents don't see that this is something that can be dangerous," Bakker said.
Tim, a gamer who is under treatment, agreed to discuss his addiction on condition that his last name not be used. He said he began playing video games three years ago at age 18. Soon, he would not leave his room for dinner. Later, he began taking drugs to stay awake and play longer. Finally, he sought help and picked up other hobbies to occupy his time.
Symptoms of addiction are easy to spot, Bakker says. Parents should take notice if a child neglects usual activities, spends several hours at a time with the computer and has no social life.
Bakker said parents of game addicts frequently echo the words of partners of cocaine addicts: "'I knew something was wrong, but I didn't know what it was.'"
By Fia Curley