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Case: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Precipitated by Wii Video Game

Recently, a former colleague facebooked me to ask about the potential for wii to cause  obsessive-compulsive symptoms (obsessive thoughts, and/or compulsive behaviors ). Her six year old son had developed some strange behaviors:  he couldn’t stop touching things.  He would touch and rub his hands and arms all over the walls, and had difficulty stopping the behavior, even when he wanted to.  For example, if they walked down a hallway, he’d face the wall while walking and continually slide his arms along the wall in serpentine-like movements.

After reading some of the posts on this website, and knowing that tics and anxiety ran in her family, she initially thought he’d developed a tic disorder.   She didn’t allow other video games, but did allow the wii.  He also didn’t play it very much, and was getting good grades, was well-behaved, played sports, and didn’t have any social problems.  However, she intuitively put together that the wii might be causing the “touching problems”, so she took it away.

“Almost immediately, the (compulsions) went away,” she told me.  “I then decided to replace whatever he was getting from the wii with those same games in real life.  We went bowling, played baseball; I even made up games the kids could play in the backyard.  Since we were doing a lot more activities, he didn’t seem to mind that we took it away.  Plus, it got all the kids to play together instead of fighting…it was fun!”

Bravo, mom!!  This is exactly the intervention I would have suggested  if the child had come to see me.  Frequently, by the time a child makes it into my office, they are having significant problems and the mother is at the end of her rope.    When I suggest to them that they replace the video games with alternate activities, this feels like one more thing on their plate, and they are already overwhelmed.  This mom took that step before she got to that stage. 

So there are really two take home points: 1)although I typically focus on video games and more disruptive behavior/mood problems, here we have an example of a very specific, isolated set of symptoms precipitated by a game that most parents regard as “healthy”.  (for the record, it is healthier than just sitting there, of course, but can still cause all the mood, behavior, sleeping, and concentration problems that other electronic games cause).  2) its a lot easier to change the activity schedule before things get out of control.  It’s very possible that left unchecked, this behavior might have snowballed into a myriad of other symptoms, making it a lot harder for mom to take action and have the energy to organize replacement activities.  .

Why did this happen?  ALL electronic screens, but especially in the form of an interactive game, will increase dopamine levels in the brain.  Many psychiatric disorders are dopamine-related, including ADHD, Obsessive-compulsive disorder, tic disorders, mood disorders, stuttering, and even schizophrenia.  Your child may not have all the symptoms I talk about that can be related to video games, but that doesn’t mean it’s not affecting them.

Follow up to this story:  After a several month break, my friend and her husband decided to reintroduce the wii in very small doses:  30 minutes at a time, once or twice a month, and that’s it.    For now, his touching behavior has not come back.  She knows she will simply pull the wii again if the compulsive touching recurs.  This case demonstrates the power of a good, clean break from all video games (“elimination”) allowing the brain to reset itself, before even considering “moderation”.

Author’s note: Tics and obsessive compulsive disorders are often seen together, implying a shared genetic relationship.  What this mother was calling a “tic”, was actually obsessive compulsive disorder, which is defined by obsessive thoughts and /or compulsive acts that disrupt the life of the individual experiencing them.  It’s interesting that although it was tics that ran in the family, it was OCD that actually presented itself, and that it was only brought out by this one stimulus.  You can see how playing video games may activate a “switch”, bringing out problems that wouldn’t otherwise be there.

/For more help with addressing video game concerns, check out www.drdunckley.com/videogames

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Victoria L Dunckley, M.D.