There is more to addiction in young adults than substances.

SAN DIEGO — Gaming addiction is now a major concern for mental health providers, according to Timothy E. Wilens, MD, of Harvard Medical School. 

Wilens, who is chief of a division of psychiatry and co-director of addiction medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, addressed gaming addiction during a question and answer session following his presentation here at Psych Congress 2019.

When he asked for a show of hands as to how many of the 100 or so clinicians attending his session thought there was a need for a dedicated session, a sea of hands shot up. 

“Yes, we do need a separate session on this,” he said. “We had guests [at Mass General] from our partner hospital in China and all they were worried about, all they wanted to talk about was gaming addiction, because it has taken over entire populations in Asia… Now, many of the same components that we see with substance use disorder, we are now seeing with gaming. We are not seeing the damage to the brain, but what we are seeing is the same impulsive, fury, and anger that we see with cocaine…

“There are some medications that have been tried for [gaming addiction] — naltrexone for example—but no significant benefit with it. It may require a cognitive behavioral therapy approach, but with a graded reduction… One thing that I want to caution about is to distinguish heavy social use from addiction. Gaming may be a way of social communication, particularly for those who have a spectrum illness. To differentiate, one needs to confirm that the gaming is causing functional impairment.” 

Turning to substance use disorder (SUD), Wilens offered these observations:

  • In young adults of middle school and high school age, 90% of SUD is related to psychopathology: ADHD, depression, manic depression disorder.
  • Alcohol is the leading substance.
  • Young adults who are abusing prescription drugs are likely getting the drugs from their homes or their friends; only about 7% come from prescribers.
  • About 10% of young adults are abusing alcohol or a drug—and the leading drug is marijuana.

And, he had this word of advice for clinicians: “Go to a vape shop if you are working with [these patients]. You need to get educated about these products.” 


Written by Peggy Peck, Editor-in-Chief, BreakingMED, is a service of @Point of Care, LLC, which provides daily medical news reports curated to serve the unique needs of busy physicians and other healthcare professionals.