This commentary is written in response to a paper by Billieux, Schimmenti, Khazaal, Maurage and Hereen (2015) published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions.
It supports and extends the arguments by Billieux, Schimmenti et al. (2015): that the study of behavioral addictions too often rests on atheoretical and confirmatory research approaches. This tends to lead to theories that lack specificity and a neglect of the underlying processes that might explain why repetitive problem behaviors occur.
In this commentary I extend the arguments by Billieux, Schimmenti et al. (2015) and argue that such research approaches might take us further away from conceptualizing psychiatric diagnoses that can be properly validated, which is already a problem in the field. Furthermore, I discuss whether the empirical support for conceptualizing repetitive problem behaviors as addictions might rest on research practices that have been methodologically biased to produce a result congruent with the proposal that substance addictions and behavioral addictions share similar traits.
I conclude by presenting a number of ways of going forward, chief of which is the proposal that we might wish to go beyond a priori assumptions of addiction in favor of identifying the essential problem manifestations for each new potential behavioral addiction.
The paper by Kuss, Griffiths, and Pontes (2016) titled “Chaos and confusion in DSM-5 diagnosis of Internet Gaming Disorder: Issues, concerns, and recommendations for clarity in the field” examines issues relating to the concept of Internet Gaming Disorder. We agree that there are serious issues and extend their arguments by suggesting that the field lacks basic theory, definitions, patient research, and properly validated and standardized assessment tools. As most studies derive data from survey research in functional populations, they exclude people with severe functional impairment and provide only limited information on the hypothesized disorder. Yet findings from such studies are widely used and often exaggerated, leading many to believe that we know more about the problem behavior than we do. We further argue that video game play is associated with several benefits and that formalizing this popular hobby as a psychiatric disorder is not without risks. It might undermine children’s right to play or encourage repressive treatment programs, which ultimately threaten children’s right to protection against violence. While Kuss et al. express support for the formal implementation of a disorder, we argue that before we have a proper evidence base, a sound theory, and validated assessment tools, it is irresponsible to support a formal category of disorder and doing so would solidify a confirmatory approach to research in this area.
Concerns about problematic gaming behaviors deserve our full attention. However, we claim that it is far from clear that these problems can or should be attributed to a new disorder. The empirical basis for a Gaming Disorder proposal, such as in the new ICD-11, suffers from fundamental issues. Our main concerns are the low quality of the research base, the fact that the current operationalization leans too heavily on substance use and gambling criteria, and the lack of consensus on symptomatology and assessment of problematic gaming. The act of formalizing this disorder, even as a proposal, has negative medical, scientific, public-health, societal, and human rights fallout that should be considered. Of particular concern are moral panics around the harm of video gaming. They might result in premature application of diagnosis in the medical community and the treatment of abundant false-positive cases, especially for children and adolescents. Second, research will be locked into a confirmatory approach, rather than an exploration of the boundaries of normal versus pathological. Third, the healthy majority of gamers will be affected negatively. We expect that the premature inclusion of Gaming Disorder as a diagnosis in ICD-11 will cause significant stigma to the millions of children who play video games as a part of a normal, healthy life. At this point, suggesting formal diagnoses and categories is premature: the ICD-11 proposal for Gaming Disorder should be removed to avoid a waste of public health resources as well as to avoid causing harm to healthy video gamers around the world.
We greatly appreciate the care and thought that is evident in the 10 commentaries that discuss our debate paper, the majority of which argued in favor of a formalized ICD-11 gaming disorder. We agree that there are some people whose play of video games is related to life problems. We believe that understanding this population and the nature and severity of the problems they experience should be a focus area for future research. However, moving from research construct to formal disorder requires a much stronger evidence base than we currently have. The burden of evidence and the clinical utility should be extremely high, because there is a genuine risk of abuse of diagnoses. We provide suggestions about the level of evidence that might be required: transparent and preregistered studies, a better demarcation of the subject area that includes a rationale for focusing on gaming particularly versus a more general behavioral addictions concept, the exploration of non-addiction approaches, and the unbiased exploration of clinical approaches that treat potentially underlying issues, such as depressive mood or social anxiety first. We acknowledge there could be benefits to formalizing gaming disorder, many of which were highlighted by colleagues in their commentaries, but we think they do not yet outweigh the wider societal and public health risks involved. Given the gravity of diagnostic classification and its wider societal impact, we urge our colleagues at the WHO to err on the side of caution for now and postpone the formalization.