Like many teens, when Mary’s son started playing the video game Fortnite, he got hooked.

She described her son as a bright child that excelled easily in his studies and that when he found something he liked, he honed in on it.

In a matter of months, she watched his enthusiasm for gaming turn into an obsession, one that landed him in the emergency room.

“His character was changing. He wasn’t sleeping. He wasn’t thinking straight and he was starting to lie.” Mary — WGBH News used a pseudonym to protect her son's identity — said.

She credited his spike in gaming to a confluence of things. Her son did not make the school team for a sport he long played and when they moved to a larger house, he suddenly had more free time and privacy.

“Many, many nights he was up playing this game. Somehow this game brought a level of happiness or challenge to his life and he always has been a kid who wants a new challenge. ‘What’s the next level. What’s the next level?’” She said.

When a hobby turns into an unhealthy habit — what Mary’s son experienced — gamers often don’t know where to turn. One local doctor, Harvard psychiatrist Alok Kanojia, knows gaming addiction is real and is helping gamers with his online program "Healthy Gamer," which he co-founded with his wife in August of 2018.

According to Pew Research, 84% of teenagers play video games. That figure shoots up to 97% among boys. As streaming video games are set to grow 27% every year over the next 6 years, they will become even more accessible. In 2018, the World Health Organization officially classified “gaming addiction” as a disease. In the U.S., this designation remains a topic for debate among researchers, though they agree that more studies need to be done.

Kanojia is quick to point out that Healthy Gamer is not a therapy program. He views Healthy Gamer as a resource in a time when there is a lack of understanding of gaming addiction. He holds free live sessions online where he and clients hang out- on Twitch and Discord. He said gamers tend to be analytical thinkers and he coaches them to connect with their emotions.

“So a lot of the gamers that I work with are actually not aware of what their negative emotions even are because they spend so many hours a day doing something that is literally shutting off their negative emotional circuitry,” he said.

When Mary and her husband caught their son playing at 3 a.m. far too many times, they did what most parents might do: They took his computer away. But that backfired, and he stopped going to school.

Mary said she reached out to countless clinics and therapists but the wait to see someone was several months long. A wait they could ill-afford as her son’s condition worsened after a few days of not playing.

He ran away, prompting his parents to call the police. And then one night shortly after, they feared that he would harm himself.

“And that evening, he kept saying, ‘So when are you taking me to this doctor?’” Mary said. She said it felt like a plea for help.

He ended up staying in an emergency room for over a week, waiting for a bed to open up in the psychiatric ward. He then spent several days at a mental health facility.

Mary said the experts wanted to treat her son for depression, and everyone said he needed to quit gaming cold turkey. Then she found Alok Kanojia, who had a different approach.

“Biological or substance use disorders are very different from behavioral addictions," Kanojia said. "When people get addicted to a video game, they're looking for the video game to fulfill something that's missing in their life.”

Kanojia said he knows what that is like firsthand. He was addicted to video games in college.

“After two years of college, I had less than a 2.0 GPA, was on academic probation, was on the cusp of failing out because I would just wake up every day and play video games from at 11:00 a.m. until 3:00 in the morning,” he said.

He was desperate for help, and his dad, desperate to help him, sent him to an ashram in India to study yoga and meditation for three months.

“The first two weeks, they were probably, like, the hardest weeks of my life. I felt so alone. It was like crying every day and I wanted to come back. And then I fell in love with it,” Kanojia said. “What I really found in India is a system that teaches you why — that teaches you what is the nature of desire like. Why do you fall victim to your desires on some days and not victim to your desires on other days? And I found a tool set and kind of a guidebook, which was like yoga and meditation.”

This is part of his therapeutic approach — one that now reaches thousands of gamers on Twitch and Discord. They include guided sound meditations, frank discussions with gamers about mental health and break down topics like dharma. Healthy Gamer posts these videos on YouTube, some which attract hundreds of thousands of views.

Healthy Gamer also has a paid online program for parents and teachers. It includes providing a framework on how to talk kids about gaming and understanding why certain games are so appealing.

“A lot of times parents don't realize what games mean to their kids. So it starts with sort of having conversations about, you know, what does the game mean for you? What does it do for you?” Kanojia said. “And then, once parents understand that, then you can start to create sort of a structure that gradually moves them away from the game because if you can create a social structure for that child outside of the video game, then the addiction will naturally go away.”

Kanojia sees Healthy Gamer as a toolkit- a way to reach gamers who may not be able to access the kind of one-on-one therapy he provided to Mary’s son. Since seeing Kanojia, Mary said her son is doing much better, is on an athletic team at school– and still plays Fortnite. But it is no longer an all-consuming force.

“Alok has a way of talking to him with logic. Instead of cold turkey, it was more moderation, finding other domains in your life, finding a balance.”