(Photo illustration: Jeremy Long)
A recovering teen addict shares how a seemingly innocent past-time devolved and nearly ruined his relationship with his family.
SINGAPORE: It all started innocently enough.
Watching others play their mobile games and playing with his friends on their mobile phones in his primary school years was how KC (not his real name) got interested in online gaming.
“Initially, it was a past-time thing, where there was no competitive pressure,” KC, who is now 19, told Channel NewsAsia. “Sometimes, my friends and classmates would compete but it wasn’t a big deal.”
Things changed as he got older.
KC recounted: “I moved to secondary school and started getting bullied. I didn’t have a lot of friends during that time but I saw a lot of people playing StarCraft, League of Legends and Counter-Strike. So I started playing and realised that I wasn’t that bad at them.
“In fact, a lot of people would only talk to me about League of Legends and that was it.”
File photo of a boy playing mobile game.
It was during this time that he would isolate himself, sitting in an empty room just watching videos on gaming strategies. He would also play League of Legends through the night and not sleep at times because it was easier to progress through the game’s ranking ladder, the teenager shared.
“Looking back, I think that was when it started to become addictive,” KC admitted. “That was when I would sacrifice sleep and other responsibilities just to play.
“At that point, I started taking the game a lot more seriously, as if it was something that my whole life depended on, and less as a past-time.”
What began as a passing interest for KC morphed into a full-blown addiction, and it was a phase that lasted for at least four years.
“I think the lowest moment for me was letting my addiction affect my family ties, to the point where they took drastic actions to curb my addiction,” said KC.
KC’s struggles with online gaming are not unique.
In fact, the issue of addiction to video games was recently thrown into the spotlight when the World Health Organization (WHO) recognised it as a mental health disorder and included in its International Classification of Diseases.
Gaming disorder is defined as a pattern of gaming behaviour, whether digital or video gaming, characterised by impaired control over gaming, with priority increasingly given to gaming over other interests and daily activities. Those with a disorder will continue or escalate their game time “despite the occurrence of negative consequences”, the WHO said on its website.
Online and offline "gaming disorder" is grouped with "disorders due to substance use or addictive behaviours", according to the new classification released by the World Health Organization. (Photo: AFP/Frederic J. BROWN)
YOUTHS AT RISK
In Singapore, information on those with such a disorder is limited.
Ms Jenny Liew, senior counsellor at the Institute of Mental Health’s National Addictions Management Service (NAMS), told Channel NewsAsia in an email that the agency has seen more than 3,000 patients a year from Financial Year 2015 to 2017. During that time, behavioural addictions, which includes gaming, accounted for less than 6 per cent of all cases seen.
As it does not separate gaming addiction from the broader category of behavioural addictions, it is difficult for NAMS to determine if more are seeking help for that particular addiction, Ms Liew added.
The counsellor did point out that of the 127 adolescent clients who participated in its treatment outcome monitoring programme from FY2012 to FY2017 and who reported they had gaming problems, the youngest client it saw was 10 years old. The majority, or 60 per cent, of them were between the ages of 13 and 15, she said.
Another professional, Ms Andrea Chan, shared another set of statistics to show how gaming disorder appears to be becoming more prevalent.
The senior counsellor from Touch Youth Intervention, a division of Touch Community Services, cited internal findings that showed that gaming disorder in Singapore is at close to 11 per cent. A 2010 study on pathological video gaming among Singaporean youths stood at 8.7 per cent, it added.
Ms Chan shared that based on their interaction with youths and education programmes in schools, her team has observed that the increase in gaming habits is mainly due to the switch from gaming on computers to gaming on devices such as tablets or handphones, which are easily accessible and highly mobile.
“That can be a possible contribution to the prevalence of gaming disorder,” the counsellor said.
She also corroborated Ms Liew’s finding that while her agency serves pre-schoolers as young as five to those aged 21, the majority of its clients with gaming disorder range from 13 to 15.
For KC, his family’s concern for his well-being, particularly how his younger brother became worried for him, proved to be an important motivating factor for the teen to seek help at non-profit organisation Touch Cyber Wellness at the start of 2016.
“My younger brother would know that I slept late from playing games, so he would set his alarm 15 minutes earlier than mine, just so he could make sure that I would wake up on time,” the teen recounted.
“Maybe he didn’t know just how bad the addiction was, but he knew it was bad.”
(Photo illustration: Jeremy Long)
His treatment would include weekly sessions, oftentimes with his counsellor to discuss the consequences of his actions, and allowing him to see how he had changed due to the addiction. They also started having small goals, where every week, KC would try and improve in areas like tolerating the call of the video games.
He also recognised that one of the reasons why he had so many problems was “because I thought my family wouldn’t understand why I was addicted to the game”.
Touch Youth Intervention’s Ms Chan corroborated KC’s account, saying that many of the youths her division sees are usually unmotivated academically and struggle with parental relationship and conflict.
“The presenting issue or symptoms we’ve observed include absenteeism from school, poor school performance, poor relationship with family members, as well as isolating themselves from friends or skipping meals to spend more time on gaming,” the counsellor said.
NAMS’ Ms Liew did note the treatment for gaming addiction differs from other addictions even though the former might present similar features.
The approach for treating gaming disorder is focused on “modifying dysfunctional use to functional use”, the counsellor explained, whereas the treatment for other addictions may be to recommend stopping the behaviour.
“VIRTUAL REALITY NOT REALITY”
Some of the strategies they would pursue include working on the person’s time management skills, practising personal and sleep hygiene and not skipping meals, and improving the child’s relationship with the family and maintaining good communication practices, she elaborated.
Ms Chan shared that counsellors at Touch Youth Intervention would have both personal and group counselling sessions with those with gaming disorder, after talking to them and their parents to better understand the condition.
For instance, during some one-to-one counselling sessions, they would play computer games with the youth in a controlled and supervised environment to help them process their behaviour and emotions.
“It is at this one-to-one counselling stage where we work on the youth’s motivation to game and address his or her coping mechanism together,” she explained.
The group sessions, meanwhile, will see the counsellors help the youths experience the “high” derived from gaming through real-life activities such as sports and music.
“(This is) to highlight to them that virtual reality is not reality, and encourage them to make real friends and develop interests apart from online gaming,” Ms Chan said.
Since his seven-month treatment in 2016, KC said the process has allowed him to be “more open about my life with others and my family”.
He also admitted that moderation is key to preventing his addiction from coming back.
“It’s not something you can 100 per cent kick out of your life. As cliched as it sounds, once you’re in it, you’re in it for life,” the 19-year-old said candidly. “You have to learn to moderate your gaming habits and control it so it doesn’t control you.”
And what would his advice be to those who might be going through similar struggles with gaming?
“Be open about it. As much as you might think you’re alone, you really aren’t,” said KC.
“There are people who are truly willing to help you and to do whatever it takes, even if it means going the extra mile.”