CHICAGO (AP) — The telltale signs are ominous: teens holing up in their rooms, ignoring friends, family, even food and a shower, while grades plummet and belligerence soars.
The problem isn't alcohol or drugs. It's video games, which for certain children can be as powerfully addictive as heroin, some doctors contend.
A leading council of the nation's largest doctors group wants to have this behavior officially classified as a psychiatric disorder to raise awareness and enable people to get insurance coverage for treatment.
In a report prepared for the American Medical Association's (AMA) annual policy meeting starting tomorrow in Chicago, the council asks the group to lobby for the behavior to be included in a widely used mental illness manual created and published by the American Psychiatric Association.
AMA delegates could vote on the proposal as early as Monday.
Video game makers scoff at the notion that their products can cause a psychiatric disorder. Even some mental health specialists say that labeling the habit as a formal addiction is going too far.
Dr. James Scully, the psychiatric association's medical director, said the group will seriously consider the council's report in the long process of revising the diagnostic manual. The current manual was published in 1994; the next edition is to be completed in 2012.
Up to 90 percent of American youngsters play video games and as many as 15 percent of them — more than 5 million children — may be addicted, according to data cited in the AMA council's report.
Joyce Protopapas of Frisco, Texas, said her 17-year-old son, Michael, was a video game addict. Over nearly two years, video and Internet games transformed him from an outgoing, academically gifted teen into a reclusive manipulator who flunked two 10th grade classes and spent several hours every day and night playing a popular online video game called World of Warcraft.
"My father was an alcoholic ... and I saw exactly the same thing" in Michael, Mrs. Protopapas said.
When she suggested to therapists that Michael had a video game addiction, "nobody was familiar with it," she said. "They all pooh-poohed it."
Last fall, the family found a therapist who "told us he was addicted, period." They sent Michael to a therapeutic boarding school, where he has spent the past six months — at a cost of $5,000 monthly, which insurance won't cover, his mother said.
According to the report prepared by the AMA's Council on Science and Public Health, based on a review of scientific literature, "dependencelike behaviors are more likely in children who start playing video games at younger ages."
Overuse most often occurs with online role-playing games involving multiple players, the report says. Blizzard Entertainment's teen-rated, monster-killing World of Warcraft is among the most popular. A company spokesman declined to comment on whether the games can cause addiction.
Michael Gallagher, president of the Entertainment Software Association, said the trade group sides with those "who agree that this so-called 'video-game addiction' is not a mental disorder."
"The American Medical Association is making premature conclusions without the benefit of complete and thorough data," Mr. Gallagher said.