Gaming addiction can get so intense that many people play games at the cost of sleep and other normal activities such as meeting friends, socialising, sports, etc., experts say. And this cuts across all ages.
The online gaming and video game industry is growing at a rapid pace in India and worldover, particularly since the onset of the Covid pandemic and the lockdowns that followed. The industry’s growth, however, has also given rise to a problem — gaming addiction among children and adults.
The fascination for gaming among children, which is part of the larger problem of increased screen time, spiked during the lockdown as they were confined within their homes and took to video games and other forms of video content for recreation, say experts.
The effects are worrying: cranky behaviour, loss of appetite, rejection of outdoor life, reluctance to socialise, eye problems, studies being affected and obesity, among others. In some instances, children even turned to crime to fulfil their craving for games.
“I have a tough time pulling my eight-year-old daughter away from the mobile phone and video games. She has become obese. The world revolves around the computer for kids and nothing else matters,” says Beenum Yadav, a mother and college teacher from Meerut.
“It was all aggravated during the lockdown. The children argued, ‘We are locked down, we can’t go outside; what else can we do?’ So, we relented. Now, they are used to it. They shy away from creative activities. It has been an emotional tug-of-war with the children,” Yadav says.
Arya, a 13-year-old boy studying at a prominent school in Delhi-NCR (name changed as his parents did not want his identity to be revealed), says that most of his friends play just online and other video games whenever they are free from school activities.
“Whenever we meet on the group chat, or even in the park these days, they discuss what mobile games they have played, which one is the latest. Fights also break out over gaming choices,” says Arya, who prefers to stay away from video games and concentrates on the guitar.
Even in the park, Arya says, there are many who bring their mobile phones and play video games instead of cricket or football. Such is the level of passion for these games among children.
A matter of concern
Healthcare experts say this trend of spending more and more time on online games is worrying and should be nipped in the bud to avoid long-term health and behavioural issues.
“Online gaming is a concern as it is easily available and has its own addictive potential. It has layers; one gets hooked as it gets more interactive. Sometimes, they play in groups,” explains Dr Samir Parikh, Director, Fortis National Mental Health Program, Fortis Healthcare.
The addiction can get so intense that many people play games at the cost of sleep and other normal activities such as meeting friends, socialising, sports, etc., experts say. And this cuts across all ages.
“I know a 14-year-old who plays for hours because he can’t leave the game. There are many who miss school, and this was way before Covid times,” Dr Parikh said.
It’s not as if there were no warning signs. According to a study published by the Indian Journal of Public Health last September, 50.8 percent of the participants in a survey among students had said they would spend more time on gaming after the lockdown.
In the lockdown period following the Covid-19 pandemic, the increase in gaming behaviour was associated with examination-related stress and the belief that gaming helps combat stress, the study said.
Another study by YourDost, an online counselling platform, claimed 61 percent of parents believed online games were beneficial to kids and helped them relieve stress during Covid.
But many parents this writer spoke to said children used the lockdown to force parents into allowing them to play games.
“I know a couple of parents whose children refuse to study unless they are allowed to play video games for at least an hour. They have no option but to buckle under pressure. But the demands could grow. What would they do then,” says Arya’s mother.
Explaining the ill-effects of constant gaming, Dr Sanjay Chugh, a senior consultant psychiatrist from Delhi, says that when a child is only into gaming, the neurological circuits associated with that activity get stronger but everything else becomes weak.
“Everything else, such as social interaction, academic prowess, personal functioning, sleep, appetite, etc., goes for a toss,” he explains.
“It is like constantly developing only your biceps and nothing else. So what happens is that your biceps get stronger but your pectorals, deltoids, abs, legs, etc., get weaker and you have lopsided development. Exactly the same thing happens when you are only gaming and doing nothing else,” Dr Chugh explains.
High court intervention
The matter acquired a more serious dimension with reports of suicides and children turning to anti-social acts to fulfil their desires, prompting Distress Management Collective, an NGO, to move court in June for a ban on gaming.
Though it refused to impose any ban, the Delhi High Court directed the government to consider formulating a policy to protect children from addiction to online games and constitute a regulatory authority to monitor and rate the content of both offline and online games.
“The organisation filed this petition after many parents complained that their children were getting addicted to mobile phones and games, particularly during the Covid period,” says advocate Robin Raju, who filed the petition for the NGO along with advocate Deepa Joseph.
“Then, there were reports of children dying by suicide or getting drawn to crimes to fulfil their desire of playing games,” advocate Raju told this writer.
There is no policy to control addiction to online games, Raju explained, adding that the online games federation is also in favour of some kind of regulatory body, and these factors prompted them to move court.
“We can only raise such issues; we have limited power. It is up to the government to take action. If the government cannot ban games, it can at least regulate them. These kids are our future, we have to save them,” says Joseph, chairperson of the NGO. They have also sent a representation to the Centre, she said.
A rising industry
Citing a report published by Ernst & Young (EY) in March this year, Roland Landers, CEO, All India Gaming Federation (AIGF), said India’s online gaming industry is expected to be worth Rs 155 billion by 2023, expanding at a CAGR of 27 percent to become the third-largest segment of the country’s media and entertainment sector.
Quoting a KPMG report, Landers said gaming time increased because of digitalisation and internet penetration. “However, the average time spent by a user was only around 2.5 hours per week in India, or 11 percent of the total smartphone time, which increased by 15 percent during the lockdown.”
“As the apex online skill gaming industry body, we at AIGF would suggest newbie gamers play on platforms that have been verified and follow AIGF’s ‘Skill Games Charter’ covering all aspects of the online gaming business process, including player interests and responsible gaming.”
Minecraft, League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Grand Theft Auto V, Valorant, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare/Warzone, ROBLOX, Apex Legends, Fortnite, Rocket League, Genshin Impact, Overwatch, Battlefield V, Final Fantasy XIV Online, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Siege, Forza Horizon 4, Dota 2, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, Back 4 Blood, Destiny 2 are some of the more popular online PC and console games. Then there are online variants of games such as rummy, poker and pool.
The number of online gamers grew from close to 300 million in 2019 to 433 million in FY20-21, the KPMG report stated.
Parents pointed to the fact that even traditional games such as ludo and chess are available online. “Why for God’s sake do you need to play ludo, chess or cricket online when you can do it off-screen and save your eyes,” wondered the mother of a 12-year-old.
Catch it early
According to the World Health Organization, a person needs to demonstrate three symptoms for at least a year to be diagnosed with gaming addiction.
- i) Not being able to control how much you are gaming ii) increasing priority to gaming to the extent that it takes precedence over other daily activities and interests iii) continuing to play games despite adverse effects on schooling, family, health, relationships, finances or social relationships.
Experts and teachers, however, say one should not wait for children to meet these criteria and such issues should be identified and red-flagged at the beginning to avoid bigger problems later.
“Parents should identify and red-flag problems with an expert at the earliest. And that’s the way to go about it,” Dr Parikh says.
On gaming addiction, Landers said: “I strongly believe that moderation is the key for any activity, including overall screen time and the time spent on gaming.”
Apart from health issues, exposing children to gaming makes them vulnerable to the lurking dangers of the online world as many of them often interact with strangers.
The latest survey by CyberSafeKids, an Irish Internet safety charity, says pre-teens in the country were playing online games with strangers or dealing with content of a sexual nature, or content related to extreme or gender-based violence, or simply bad language.
The violent and negative nature of many games, says LN Rao, an advocate who retired as DCP (Special Cell), Delhi Police, could provoke them to replicate it in real life. “The mind of a child is like a blank sheet. They acquire many traits. If they are exposed to violent games, they might develop those over a period and get attracted to unwanted activities.”
A child playing racing games all the time will tend to speed when he lays his hands on a bike or a car to relive that thrill, Rao explained. “A boy losing money in a game will try all ways and means to recover the lost amount. It leads to criminal acts.”
The China model and regulations
In a bid to curb addiction, China recently barred minors from playing video games for more than three hours a week. According to recent reports in the Chinese media, the country’s regulators have also temporarily put on hold approval for new online games in the country.
Should India follow suit? The views are not unanimous.
Dr Chugh says China has taken a step in the right direction by limiting gaming time for minors. “But China (because of its authoritarian regime) is one of those nations that can enforce such a rule.”
India also needs some kind of regulation, not necessarily the way China has done it, but perhaps by counselling children about the negative effects of gaming, he explained.
Rao also advocates a policy to limit such games, as in China. “There should be an SOP (standard operating procedure) and age bar for gaming, depending on the nature, just as with liquor, etc. Video parlours should be regulated.”
According to Dr Parikh, however, a ban is not the answer. “Not everything can be achieved through policy. Even if we limit gaming hours, how are we going to implement or monitor it?”
The way out
One solution, he says, is media literacy and counselling. “Children, right from the youngest age, should be taught how to have the right kind of balance, when to seek help, how to identify problems, whom to reach out to…”
Identifying and stimulating the creative side of children can help counter such problems and behaviour, experts and parents say.
“Sports, creativity and their areas of interest need to be encouraged. Parents and teachers need to be role models. They need to have consistent conversations with children and use various teaching tools to make them realise the harm caused by addictive gaming.”
Arya’s mother agrees. She says she managed to counsel her son, limit his online time and develop his interest in music. “Maybe that helped him stay away from the dangers of gaming.”
Summing up, Dr Chugh says change has to begin at home. “You can’t have a parent watching online content all the time, chatting away on WhatApp, playing with the phone… and then expect children to stay away from games.”
He concluded: “If we do not act now, we are going to end up paying a huge price.”
(The author is an Independent Journalist and Content Creator based in Delhi)