Anything over five hours of being glued to a screen can be termed as addiction
Recently, a sixteen-year-old boy in Lucknow reportedly shot his mother dead while she was sleeping, angered by her refusal to let him play a video game. He also threatened his ten-year-old sister to stay quiet while the body of their mother was in the other room.
For two days, he cooked for his younger sister and made sure they did not speak about their mother even as the little girl kept crying. The primary reason cited by the youngster was his addiction to video games, which would often anger his mom. The boy showed no sign of remorse. As per reports, he even partied with his friends at home, ordered food online and watched a film after spraying a room freshener to mask the stench.
In another incident, a 16-year-old boy killed his cousin in Nagaur, Rajasthan to pay off debts he incurred through online video games. As per reports, gaming addiction has led to at least six killings in the past two years in India. In February, a 14-year-old boy killed himself by hanging in Central Mumbai over “issues related to too much gaming.”
While on the one hand research that proves that video gaming has its benefits as a source of entertainment and relaxation and helps in boosting social interactions and connections among players while also contributing to their cognitive skills, creativity and reflexes, the problem arises when online video gaming exceeds the limits of moderation, say behavioural experts. “That is when it turns into an addiction,” says Dr Sonal Anand, a psychiatrist from Mumbai’s Wockhardt Hospital at Mira Road.
Putting into perspective the difference between gaming in moderation versus gaming in excess, Anand points out that anything over five hours of being constantly glued to the screen can be termed an addiction.
The American Psychological Association defines the ‘Internet gaming disorder as a syndrome in which one experiences a loss of interest in other social activities, loss of relationships, educational or career opportunities, gaming in order to relieve or escape anxiety, guilt or other negative mood states over a twelve-month period. Additionally, researchers have established the negative impact on one’s sound mental health, including loneliness, depression and even suicidal thoughts, resulting from excessive digital gaming, especially in the last two years of the pandemic when everyone was forced to remain indoors. It was then that there was a significant rise in the number of gaming app downloads across India.
As per a research paper published in the International Journal on Mental Health Addiction by Deena Dimple Dsouza from the department of occupational therapy at Manipal, user engagement in the gaming industry grew considerably during the pandemic period. “For example, WinZo Games, an Indian-based gaming company, have reported three times more user engagement and 30 per cent higher traffic in online mobile gaming. Around 35 per cent higher usage has been observed in multi-player modes in comparison with single-user modes, a trend also found elsewhere. Similarly, Paytm First Games, an Indian mobile-based online gaming platform, reported an almost 200 per cent increase in the user base during the pandemic, with 75,000 new users,” the study noted.
Digital games can be defined as any type of game played electronically. Last year, the ministry of education sent out an advisory in which it said, “Playing online games leads to a serious gaming addiction which has been considered as a gaming disorder. The game is designed in a way that each level is more complicated and complex than the previous one. This causes a player to push themselves to the limits in order to progress in the game. Therefore, playing online games with no restrictions and self-limits leads many players to become addicted and eventually diagnosed with gaming disorder. The gaming companies also emotionally compel the child to buy more levels and almost force in-app purchases.”
It is estimated that close to 40 per cent of India’s population at present is under the age of 20 and that a large fragment of digital gaming is targeted toward them. But ask any gamer, and they call it competitive gaming that has both rewards and benefits. In the span of six months, Ryan McLeod (name changed), a Class IX student from Arya Vidya Mandir school in Mumbai said he unlocked ten levels of a video game and earned close to Rs 1 lakh in prize money. “It just becomes so addictive after a point and especially when you begin to win. I am a part of a team of six players. The head of the team gets us into organised competitions and we make money as a team by winning several levels in multiple games. I don’t feel like socialising with my family or relatives and that is because I have such a strong team of friends via online gaming. Yes, at times I get very disturbed mentally when I am asked to pause gaming for a few hours or totally stop it during exams. I feel restless, anxious and very very irritable.”
Twenty-four-year-old Jatin Rao from Chandigarh, who is presently pursuing his graduate degree in airline management, says he started gaming as a novice five years back and got so immersed in it that he now plays “only for tournaments which pay loads of money.” While Rao has been able to balance his virtual life as a gamer and his life as a student, it has been extremely difficult for 13-year-old Aranya Tavade and others like her. “I have had to take her for psychological counselling so as to get her off the screen,” says Aranya’s mother, Vishakha Tavade. “I could see that she was going into a shell. With a lack of social company and her grades going down in school, Aranya was getting into the first stage of depression. And all of this, said our counsellor, was because of over gaming. She had become a religious gamer,” says Vishakha.
At the SHUT (Services for Healthy use of Technology) Clinic at The National Institute for Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Dr Manoj Kumar Sharma, additional professor of clinical psychology and Dr Santosh Chaturvedi, professor of psychiatry, compiled details of children who were brought for consultation at the clinic. A 15-year-old was found spending 10-12 hours playing video games as a way of coping with mental stress. The irony was that the mental stress, found the professors, was caused because of over gaming in the first place. His parents complained of “aggressive and disturbed behaviour” and signed him into multiple sessions of psychological counselling.
With the rise of psychological and behavioural issues coming up as an effect of excessive reliance on digital gaming as a means of recreation and escapism, several support groups have mushroomed such as the Computer Gaming Addicts Anonymous (GAA) which leverages the power of group support to the realm of gaming addiction. The GAA website notes, ‘The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop video gaming, which is completely up to you.’
There has also been concern that exposure to the extreme violence that is commonly found in video games can desensitise teens and young adults to such violence, causing emotional problems and even leading them into expressing violent behaviour themselves. “Overindulgence in digital gaming can be detrimental to one’s mental health. It impacts both emotion and cognition. There have been three to four cases of gadget and gaming addiction every week at my clinic in Mumbai,” says Dr Avinash Desousa, a psychiatrist.
Two years ago, when the violent online game Blue Whale was in news for inciting suicidal tendencies among kids in the impressionable age group, psychiatrists from across the country came together in the city of Chandigarh, to voice their concern over children’s addiction to the game, which reportedly drove two children to commit suicide as a part of the tasks assigned within the game. Experts also feel that the addiction to violent online games can be a symptom of childhood depression. “When a child is neglected, he takes the help of gadgets. He will make friends in the virtual world and not speak to his own relatives. Children must never lack company or must never be left without anything to do. Their minds must be kept occupied at all times so as to get over the immersiveness offered by online gaming,” says Anand.
Dr Sonal Anand
Consultant – Psychiatrist
Wockhardt Hospital, Mira Road
To book an appointment call: +918108101104