Mental Health in Schools

Last week I attended the Propsych Mental Health in Schools Conference. I was privileged to hear many wonderful speakers (including one of my heroes, Dr Mark Cross from the ABC documentary series Changing Minds – I was a bit star struck to be honest). However one speaker spoke about a topic that is quite pertinent to parenting our children today. Dr Wayne Warburton, a neuropsychologist specialising in brain addiction, spoke about the effects of screen addiction. His talk got quite technical at times, showing various images of the brain through its development and the effects of different variables on the brain – especially addiction of various types.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), which is the manual for psychiatrist and psychologists in terms of diagnosing mental illness, in its latest edition outlined a newly defined potential psychiatric disorder – internet gaming disorder. Since the release of the DSM5, there has been an explosion of research on this and on problematic screen addiction – mainly among boys and particularly prevalent in Asian countries. In Seoul, Korea there are over 40 clinics dealing solely with screen addiction and many in China, where they use more severe methods such as boot camp.

The reality is that today about 10% of kids worldwide have a problem. This means that their gaming potentially impacts on at least one area of their life, for example sleep or schoolwork. 1-2% have an addiction at a pathological level, which needs serious intervention. There are young people who, at the extreme are actually dying from gaming addiction. They die from exhaustion and dehydration, from blood clots (because they don’t move) extreme obesity and heart attack.

It is surmised that children are attracted by the instant reward that they get for low effort. Games are designed to give constant reward. They have control and mastery, but the games are designed so that you never quite get to the end, they continually have a next step that draws you in. This releases dopamine in the brain, which is the hormone of addiction. In fact we know that the brain of someone with internet gaming addiction looks exactly the same as that of a heroin addict!

Risk factors for internet gaming disorder include:

  • Genetic/temperament vulnerabilities – impulsivity, executive control deficiencies etc.
  • Lack of parental authority or supervision
  • Parental over-control / pressure
  • Parental emotional distance
  • Untreated mental illness
  • Chronically unmet needs – belonging, control, self-esteem etc.
  • Cyberbullying
  • Reward seeking / addictive personality - biological vulnerability: less dopamine receptors / lower dopamine serotonin levels
  • Family discord
  • Mental health difficulties
  • High engagement with technology

One of the serious effects of gaming addiction is its impact on sleep. Lack of sleep leads to serious affects on daily functioning and is also a catalyst for a variety of mental illnesses. Recent recommendations for sleep for young people up to the age of 17 is 11 hours and for adults is actually not the 8 hours that is commonly cited, but 9 hours of sleep a night.

There is evidence to show that heavy screen users have problems in their relationships. This may be because of the effects on the striatum, which is the part of the brain responsible for antisocial impulses. It is also, quite obviously an effect of addiction, which impacts on quality time in relationships.

We know that the light from screens actually inhibits melatonin release. Melatonin is the hormone that our brain emits which makes us sleepy at night and wakes us up in the morning. When we have screens on in our bedrooms, our bodies stop producing melatonin and our sleep patterns are seriously impacted.

Factors that assist in preventing internet gaming disorder include:

  • Parental warmth
  • Empathy
  • ‘healthy’ supervision
  • Pro-active parenting
  • Balance with ‘real world’ activities
  • Commitment to schooling
  • Basic needs met in everyday life (belonging, control, self-esteem etc.)
  • Parental limits enforced
  • Strong self-reflection
  • External assistance / Psychotherapy

If you are concerned that someone in your family may be suffering from too much screen time or internet gaming addiction, there is a wonderful tool to assist you in assessing the situation and finding resources for help. This is available at:

Click here to view more information

Dr Wayne Warburton has written a book, Growing Up Fast and Furious, for those interested in further reading on this topic.

Have a lovely week ahead.

Raquel Charet

Dr Cross and Raquel Charet