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The Toughest Part of Pokémon Go: Stopping

The app-based game is a sensation, but for some it could be an addiction

IGN Pokemon Go Trailer
Source: IGN Pokemon Go Trailer

There’s plenty to like in Pokémon Go’s new twist on internet gaming. Rather than sitting alone in a darkened room, connecting anonymously with others sitting alone in their rooms, players are out and about in the air and sunshine, bumping into others on the same quest, talking, walking, motivated — like a worldwide scavenger hunt.

Sure, it’s fantasy — players track and “catch” virtual Pokémon characters using the GPS on their smartphones — but the real world is part of the experience, and that means real people, real interactions and real exercise. And already, just a week after its launch, Pokémon Go is showing signs of being a possible boon to the mental and physical health of many.

Scroll the Pokémon Go social media feeds and you’ll see people commenting about anxiety, depression and other issues seeming to lift as they walk and wander, sometimes for miles, trying to “catch ’em all,” as the Pokémon slogan goes.

This is encouraging stuff. Exercise is great for everyone, of course, but it’s been called a “magic drug” for those with depression and anxiety disorders. And it’s truly heartening to see those whose social anxiety usually keeps them behind closed doors celebrating a feeling of connection. Twitter poster @CptNaomi expressed it this way: “#PokemonGo is gunna cure my social anxiety. Everyone has been so nice. People are not as scary as originally perceived.”

Understandably then, I’m reluctant to rain on the parade, but it’s important to note that Pokémon Go, just like other forms of technology, has the potential to be a problem for some — even to rise to the level of an addiction.

When Behavior Becomes Addiction

Technology addiction has yet to be officially classified as a mental health condition, but many researchers and those who work in addiction medicine largely agree that it is real. Internet gaming disorder, which falls under the umbrella of technology addiction, is now included as a condition warranting more research in the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, known as the DSM-5, and is considered poised for full recognition. But already, according to a DSM-5 fact sheet, studies of gamers reveal this:

“When these individuals are engrossed in Internet games, certain pathways in their brains are triggered in the same direct and intense way that a drug addict’s brain is affected by a particular substance. The gaming prompts a neurological response that influences feelings of pleasure and reward, and the result, in the extreme, is manifested as addictive behavior.”

Such compulsive play pushes aside other interests and responsibilities, threatening relationships, academics, jobs and more. And in those extreme cases, the person feels powerless to stop, even though the game play leads to significant distress.

Although this research focused on traditional online gamers, it’s no stretch to expect the same to apply to Pokémon Go players. Check out those Pokémon Go social media feeds again, and the signs are already there. There’s talk of meals forgotten, sleep missed, and responsibilities, even safety, ignored in pursuit of the thrill of a Pokémon capture. And then there’s the note from the boss shared on one tweet: “We are paying you to work, not chase fictional video game characters with your cell phone all day.

Of course, the game is fresh and interest is high. The excitement will ebb with time and most people will go on to the next big thing. But some will not.

Will you be one of the people with a lasting struggle? First, know your risk factors. Addiction of any kind is more likely if:

  • Addiction runs in your family.
  • You have at least one other addiction.
  • You have a mental health disorder such as anxiety, depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Then as you play, watch for warning signs. Do you find that you:

  • Feel preoccupied with playing the game, either thinking about your last session or plotting the next?
  • Need to play more and more to achieve the same satisfaction?
  • Feel anxious, sad or irritable when you try to cut down or stop?
  • Try unsuccessfully to control your behavior?
  • Lose interest in other activities?
  • Lie about how much time you spend playing?
  • Play as a way to escape or lessen a negative mood?
  • Jeopardize or lose out on a good opportunity or relationship because of your play?
  • Keep using despite the problems your play is causing in your life?

If more than a couple of these descriptions start hitting home, it’s time to take your situation seriously and reach out for help. Yes, Pokémon Go is just a game, but it’s worth noting that a 2009 national study that looked at more than a thousand randomly selected youth found that more than 8% of gamers between ages 8 and 18 showed signs of addiction or pathological gaming. Might Pokémon Go, with its always-at-our-fingertips smartphone access, take that percentage even higher?

All we know for sure at this point is that an estimated 7.5 million people downloaded the Pokémon Go app in less than a week in the U.S. alone, according to Forbes. Everyone, it seems, is playing the game. What remains to be seen is how many will be able to stop.

David Sack, MD, is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. As CMO of Elements Behavioral Health, he oversees a network of addiction treatment centers that includes Promises luxury rehab in California and COPAC drug rehab in Mississippi.

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