In Germany, six percent of children and young people are dependent on gaming and social media – twice as many as before the corona pandemic.
Young VR glasses user: The virtual world fascinates even the youngest
Paul is 19, comes from Berlin and graduated from high school about a year ago. He has bad memories of his last school years. “Because of Corona there was a constant lockdown. No school for weeks and otherwise you should just stay at home.” Meeting up with friends, roaming around, partying, going to sports – much of what is important and natural for young people in Germany was taboo for a long time.
“The only thing you could do was play games on your computer or smartphone in your room and write with the others on social media,” says Paul, who is glad that the restrictions are now over. For the 19-year-old, the many hours spent on the computer are just a bad memory, and he has long been back in the real world. Others got stuck in the virtual cosmos.
According to a long-term study conducted by the Hamburg University Hospital UKE together with the health insurance company DAK-Gesundheit, the number of children and young people who are pathologically dependent on gaming and social media has doubled since 2019. Around 680,000 adolescents gamble, chat, post or stream for almost five hours a day.
Andreas Storm, CEO of DAK-Gesundheit, speaks of “terrifying results”. “Unfortunately, the hope that an increase in usage times and addiction will be slowed down in recent years has not been fulfilled.”
Bucket instead of toilet
The psychologist Kai Müller experiences the consequences of this every day. He is chairman of the professional association for media addiction and works in the ambulance for gambling addiction at the university clinic in Mainz. Desperate parents report here who don't know what to do anymore because their children spend every free minute on the computer or mobile phone.
School lessons in Berlin (2020): Massive restrictions during the pandemic
Young people who neglect school and family responsibilities, resist being disconnected from the screen and react with anxiety, intense anger and incomprehension. Who barricade themselves in their rooms, are no longer accessible and no longer have any hobbies or interests. Who, in extreme cases, forget to eat and put a bucket in the room so they don't have to go to the toilet.
Psychologist Müller makes it clear that the pandemic was particularly stressful for adolescents, who are more psychologically vulnerable than adults. The consumption of games, videos and social media was often a “soul comforter”.
“When the media picks you up in a phase of fear, disappointment, self-doubt, then a way like we are in tell psychology emotional conditioning takes place.” A bond is created and of course this encourages you to get stuck on it.
Total loss of control
Since the beginning of 2022, the WHO, the World Health Organization, has recognized computer game addiction as an independent diagnosis. Psychologist Kai Müller names three main criteria for diagnosis. On the one hand there is the “loss of control”, i.e. no longer being able to consciously make free decisions. “How much do I use, when do I not use it, how long do I use it and what do I use?”
< p>Psychologist Müller: “A kind of emotional conditioning”
Point two is prioritization. When the game or the use of social media is no longer just part of life, but dominates everything. “The third criterion is that the use is continued although those affected notice that this actually leads to problems, or that it is not good for me,” says Müller.
Suffering usually only develops over time. “When young people see that the circle of friends, who used to gamble a lot, when they turn to other areas of life: their first girlfriend, their first boyfriend or other hobbies that have nothing to do with the Internet, but they themselves are still involved in the game This is often such an internal trigger that those affected say: 'Yes, why doesn't this actually happen to me?'”
17-year-olds, for example, report to the gambling addiction clinic in Mainz and ask for help. “If those affected no longer function mentally, but also in terms of performance and socially – that's a cold expression -” reports Müller from practice.
Gambling addiction is the most common problem
Young people learn new things every day. Not just academically, also personally. “There are a whole range of developmental tasks, and with our patients who come to us as young adults, I very often have the effect that someone is already 25 or 26 biological years of life, but seems more like a 15 or 15 year old to me 16-year-old.”
Young gamer (in Berlin): retreat into the digital world
Boys are far more likely to be addicted to games than girls. The dependency on social media affects both sexes, but is a much less common topic in the addiction clinic in Mainz. “The use of social networks is part of society today, it's in people's heads,” says Müller, who assumes “a high number of unreported cases” among addicts in this area.
The Federal Ministry of Health has commissioned information campaigns given that explicitly target the excessive use of social media. Müller reports on a research project that aims to develop further treatment options.
In any case, the sooner doctors and psychologists can intervene and before it becomes chronic, the better the addiction can be treated. “Well, we also have patients who clearly had symptoms of addiction when they were young, who then came to treatment for the first time as young adults, some of whom were also treated as inpatients, and who are still 30 years old or older and still get it again because it just won't go away.”
Good business: The games market is in the Pandemic has grown significantly
Getting a place in therapy is getting harder and harder. In the Mainz outpatient clinic, there are three months between the telephone registration and the first appointment with a psychologist. It used to be two weeks, says Müller. “We are far from having an adequate supply situation.” Patients have now been waiting half a year for a place in therapy.
More prevention, more help
Prevention and help offers must be expanded, also demands the chairman of the DAK-Gesundheit, Andreas Storm. “If we don't act quickly now, more and more children and young people will become addicted to the media and the negative trend can no longer be stopped.”
Storm sees politics, but also society, as having a duty. “Children and young people must learn to be able to assess the risks of using digital media and to reflect on their usage behavior so that they can use the possibilities of the digital world constructively in the long term for their private and professional lives.”
Psychologists see this This also includes a mandate for parents, who have to consistently set limits on the use of digital entertainment offers, especially with younger children. Because one thing is clear: computers and smartphones are omnipresent and the modern world would be inconceivable without them. While abstinence is possible with alcohol or nicotine addiction, relapse is always just a click away with digital addiction.