Children addicted to using electronic devices 24/7 will be diagnosed with a serious mental illness if a new addiction, included as "internet-use disorder" in a worldwide psychiatric manual, is confirmed by further research.
The formal inclusion of the new addiction has been welcomed by Australian psychology professionals in response to a wave of "always-on" technology engulfing kids.
Fairfax Media has spoken to parents of children as young as seven who are aggressive, irritable and hostile when deprived of their iPads or laptops. Psychologists argue video game and internet addictions share the characteristics of other addictions, including emotional shutdown, lack of concentration and withdrawal symptoms if the gadgets are removed.
Other fallout can include devastating impacts for children and families as social interaction and even food are neglected in favour of the virtual worlds the children inhabit.
Australian experts contributed to the Australian Psychological Society's submission to the international manual, supporting the inclusion of an addiction focused on internet gaming.
In recognition of threats posed by increasingly prevalent electronic devices, the bible for the psychiatric profession, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), will include internet-use disorder as a condition "recommended for further study" in its revised edition in May next year.
The inclusion acknowledges risks posed by over-use of seemingly benign technologies, classifying internet-use disorder alongside other mental disorders that need further research before becoming a recognised mental illness that can be formally diagnosed.
Commentary in the United States about the move has raised the spectre of children being over-treated and even medicated for playing computer games.
But some Australian psychologists argue there should be an even broader diagnosis of internet-use addiction, allowing proper treatment of children obsessed by other technologies such as texting and a proliferation of devices such as iPads, tablets and Nintendo DS.
Reflecting problems with children's over-use of technology, Mike Kyrios from Swinburne University of Technology - one of the authors of the APS submission and a clinical psychologist with more than 15 years experience - is formally pushing for the revised manual to broaden internet-use disorder beyond gaming addictions.
Professor Kyrios says once more research is invested in the disorder, it would allow health professionals to diagnose children with addictive behaviours from technology overuse and treat them appropriately, including strategies to change their obsessive over-reliance on being connected.
"With kids, gaming is an obvious issue. But overall, technology use could be a potential problem," he said.
Professor Kyrios said children with underlying obsessive compulsive disorders could be at risk from technology overuse.
Kara Wright was so concerned her 12-year-old son, Jack, had an internet addiction, she banned him from using the laptop over school holidays.
After playing the computer game Minecraft for an hour on his laptop, Jack would become frustrated, angry and often cry, Ms Wright said.
"It is only when he is using technology that those emotions emerge," Ms Wright, who lives Caloundra in Queensland, said. "It had a huge impact on the family."
Her first attempt to address the problem was to limit Jack to a one-hour time limit. When that didn't work, Ms Wright enforced a full ban.
In January, Emil Hodzic, a qualified psychologist with seven years experience, established a video game addiction treatment clinic in Sydney's CBD, because of what he saw as growing demand from frustrated parents and damaged children. He said he was seeing clients as young as 12 addicted to the internet and video games.
"The most typical sign of addiction is anything that looks like withdrawal symptoms," he said. "So any expression of distress, frustration, irritability when they don't get to play."
Mr Hodzic said about 70 per cent of his clients were children and teenagers, with many showing addiction symptoms closely related to anxiety and depression. "A lot of kids I have coming into the clinic have difficultly in being able to tolerate distress without zoning out via the internet or via the games," he said.
But psychiatrist Rhoshel Lenroot, the chairman of child psychiatry at the University of NSW, said it was still too early to know how detrimental technology overuse could be. "I think [it] can be dangerous in not learning how to pay attention in a focused way, but in balance there is nothing wrong with technology."