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Web giants 'cashing in' on misery of children, says NHS boss, amid surge in treatment for gaming addiction

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 6 days ago Laura Donnelly
a woman using a laptop computer: Psychiatric staff will treat young patients with severe and complex addiction  - PA © Peter Byrne /PA Psychiatric staff will treat young patients with severe and complex addiction  - PA a drawing of a person: Duty of Care banner ad © Provided by Telegraph Media Group Limited Duty of Care banner ad

The head of the health service has accused internet firms of "cashing in" on addiction, as he announced NHS plans to treat children with disorders caused by gaming and social media.

Simon Stevens said the service had been left "picking up the pieces" of young lives wrecked by obsessions fuelled by technology, as he attacked giants for failing to behave responsibly.

Health chiefs highlighted other countries who have banned under 16s from online gaming after midnight, as they announced plans for the first centre to treat children with such addictions.

It follows the Telegraph’s Duty of Care campaign calling for more stringent regulation of web giants, in order to protect children from harm.

The national centre, opening next month, will work with those whose lives are being “wrecked” by an obsessive interest in computer games, with treatment offered face-to-face or by Skype. 

It follows the World Health Organisation's (WHO) decision last year to classify gaming addiction as a medical disorder.

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Mr Stevens, NHS chief executive, said: "Health needs are constantly changing which is why the NHS must never stand still - this new service is a response to an emerging problem, part of the increasing pressures that children and young people are exposed to these days.

a person using a laptop computer: Psychiatric staff will treat young patients with severe and complex addiction © Peter Byrne /PA Psychiatric staff will treat young patients with severe and complex addiction

"However, the NHS should not be left to pick up the pieces – gambling and internet firms have a responsibility to their users as well as their shareholders and should do their utmost to prevent rather than cash in on obsessive or harmful behaviour.”

The Centre for Internet and Gaming Disorders, based in London, will see psychiatrists and psychologists work with those aged aged between 13-25 suffering from severe or complex behavioural issues linked to gaming, gambling or social media. 

The national service - the first of its kind - comes alongside 14 gambling clinics for adults being opened across the country. 

Health chiefs called for far more to be done to help prevent internet addiction, highlighting strict steps taken elsewhere. 

The NHS said other countries grappling with internet and gaming addiction had taken other steps to protect children. 

They cited the example of South Korea, where the government has introduced a law banning access for children under 16 from online games between midnight and 6am.  

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In Japan, players are alerted if they spend more than a certain amount of time each month playing games and in China, internet giant Tencent has limited the hours that children can play its most popular games, they said. 

Mr Stevens has previously caused for a “mental health levy” on social media and gambling firms, which he says are fuelling an epidemic of mental ill-health. 

Gaming disorder is defined by WHO as a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour so severe that it takes “precedence over other life interests”.

To be diagnosed, the WHO says a victim's behaviour must be "of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning."

Experts said children and young people were spending up to 12 hours a day hooked on computer games, becoming socially isolated from their peers.

Teachers have claimed that the videogame Fortnite has made children "aggressive and violent" with parents told that the game was becoming “all consuming” for young children, who risked becoming “addicted”.

a screenshot of a newspaper: Addiction | Children's lives ruined by the Internet © Provided by Telegraph Media Group Limited Addiction | Children's lives ruined by the Internet

Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, director of the national centre for internet and gaming addictions, said: “The centre for gaming and internet addictions is the first and only specialist service on the NHS.

“I am delighted to be leading it and grateful to the NHS for recognising the problem, which will ultimately see us helping thousands of children and young people.”

Dr Bowden-Jones, the Royal College of Psychiatrists' spokeswoman on behavioural addictions, said families could be left feeling "utterly helpless" when children and young people were hooked on gaming.

"Gaming disorder is not a mental illness to be taken lightly: we are talking about instances where someone may spend up to 12 hours a day playing computer games and can end up becoming socially isolated," she said. 

Claire Murdoch, NHS national mental health director, said: "Compulsive gaming and social media and internet addiction is a problem that is not going to go away when they play such a key part in modern life.

“The NHS is rising to the challenge - as it always does - with these new, innovative services, but we can’t be expected to pick up the pieces, which is why tech giants need to recognise the impact that products which encourage repeated and persistent use have on young people and start taking their responsibilities seriously too.”

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A spokesman for the Association of UK Interactive Entertainment said: "Video games are played healthily by millions of people across the UK every day. And the video games industry takes the health and wellbeing of all players seriously, especially children. 

"We encourage safe and sensible playing practices - such as encouraging regular breaks, offering robust parental controls to limit play time and recommending games as part of a balanced lifestyle - to ensure a healthy approach to play.

"But as with other activities and experiences people find enjoyable in life, we are aware that some individuals may play games to excess.

"The industry encourages those individuals to ask for help, both inside game communities and outside, to re-establish a healthy relationship with play. We look forward to continuing to work with the relevant authorities to further support player safety."  

The Telegraph is campaigning for a statutory duty of care on gaming and social media firms to protect children from online harms. 

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention and mental health:

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