When gaming turns addictive
July 11, 2018 | 3:08 PM
by Shruthi Nair
Game addiction illustrative photo

After the World Health Organisation (WHO) listed gaming addiction as a mental health condition, we delved deeper into the alarming rise in mental health conditions among children, and teenagers in particular, and talked to a psychiatrist who told us about mental health in general, the early symptoms, and what parents can do to help their children in dealing with mental health issues, especially those addicted to video games.

Thirteen-year-old Mark (name changed) was a happy-go-lucky child who did well in school. Whether in academics or in sports, Mark managed to be among the toppers. But things didn’t remain the same for long. His parents suddenly started noticing a stark change in his behaviour. Mark would often get agitated and lose his temper at the slightest provocation. He stopped going out in the evenings to play with his friends and instead preferred to stay at home.

There was a complete loss of interest in activities that he had previously enjoyed. Mark also complained of frequent headaches, backaches, and tiredness in general. While initially his parents thought it to be a passing phase, which normally happens in the early teen years, the alarm bells rang when his school results were out. Mark had failed and the parents and school remained clueless over what the reason for his falling grades was. During a session with the school counsellor, Mark confessed that he was busy playing online games in his room on his computer most of the time, and would lie to his parents saying that he was looking for information for school work. What started as a hobby had taken over his life.

In the regular sessions with the counsellor and later with a psychiatrist, Mark admitted his difficulty in abstaining from playing games for more than a few hours despite feeling guilty about it.

Mark was diagnosed with gaming addiction and needed regular counselling sessions for almost a year to get out of it. While Mark today has completely recovered and has gone back to his earlier normal and healthier life, his case raises a clarion call for all parents whose children are in their teens and for whom video and online games have become number one priority.

What’s enjoyed by millions around the world as just another game and a fun hobby turns into a dangerous habit, if not played in moderation.

According to Dr Brent Conrad, clinical psychologist and author of How to Help Children Addicted to Video Games, “Parents need to assess the severity of their child’s video game addiction and then take clear, decisive actions to finally eliminate the video game addiction from their lives.”

A German study found that a majority of addicted gamers are male and come from families with lower academic achievement, and tend to use video games as a way of coping with negative moods.

Anuya Phule, a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist at Hatat Polyclinic in Oman, said that it comes as no surprise to her or her colleagues that gaming addiction has been deemed as a mental disorder.

“Most psychiatrists already know that video game addiction is a disorder. We have had cases where parents have come to us saying their children play all the time and they get very angry and aggressive when they are stopped from playing. The pleasure that the brain gets is like a sugar high. The person goes into a trance and is able to escape reality. It becomes an addiction as it changes the chemical levels of dopamine and adrenaline in the brain. The moment it’s taken away, the person is exposed to reality and he/she doesn’t want to take it. When children are introduced to video games very soon, they can get addicted,” she said.

“Parents shouldn’t introduce children to video games at least until the age of 10. And even if they do, there should be a time limit of a few hours on weekends, and not everyday,” she added.

When we get a cold or a fever or fracture our leg, we go to the doctor immediately and have no problem in sharing the information with our family, friends, and colleagues. However, as soon as we discover that our mental health is deteriorating, we shut down and face an unfathomable amount of hesitation to talk about it.

Attaching a taboo to mental health illnesses has been in existence for long, but in recent times, mental health is slowly but surely becoming a huge topic of discussion as more and more people are increasingly getting affected.

Depression, clinical or otherwise, is something that many people go through nowadays. However, people have started breaking the shackle and stigmas associated with depression and have been coming out openly to talk about their battle against depression, taking a cue from well-known celebrities and motivators.

Well known names from the industry including Adele, Beyonce, Deepika Padukone, Carrie Fisher, Lady Gaga are just some names that have openly spoken about their encounters with depression. Even royalty hasn’t been able to keep mum about depression. Prince Harry has in many interviews spoken about how he was very close to having a complete emotional breakdown. In fact, Prince Harry, along with Prince William and Kate Middleton, are now ambassadors for “Heads Together”, a British mental health organisation.

“Depression and anxiety were not described well before. But now people are more aware as they read about it. Depression and anxiety co-exist. We normally go through depression here and there. As long as our functionality isn’t affected, we don’t realise it. When a person’s functionality gets affected in terms of not sleeping well, skipping work or feeling alone and isolated or crying all the time, and it continues for one or two weeks, they then approach us,” said Anuya.

Mental health is a very complex topic because with every passing generation, changing lifestyle choices and heavy dependence on technology, the number of problems that people are faced with has been increasing manifold and it’s becoming more and more common.

According to WHO, one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. Around 450 million people currently suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill health and disability worldwide.

There are various kinds of mental issues that people have to deal with and each issue has to be dealt with in a different way. The causes and treatment for each issue are different and there is no generalisation that can be done for any of the cases. “Certain mental issues exist because of family history and are prevalent already. Secondly, the person is pre-disposed to mental disorders because of the environment. If your parents have had a disorder and if you have been in a stressful situation, your genes release those ailments. If you maintain mental health, your genes won’t release the mental disorder. It is important to take care of your mind and mental health,” she said.

Stigma, discrimination, and ignorance prevent treatment from reaching people at the right time. People of any age group, background, race or gender can be clenched by such disorders and more often than not, the reasons aren’t definable.

Kids too go through depression and may tend to deal with it in a different way. “Children show disturbance in other ways. They might show irritation and anger, they might avoid going out, there might be bed-wetting, food habits may change, school grades could go down, or she/he might not be attentive in class or at home. This could happen due to a chemical imbalance in the brain or a long period of stressful events,” said Anuya.

Another problem that can lead to psychological disorders and disturbance among children is addiction. As mentioned before, gaming addiction has been classified as a mental health disorder. WHO has defined gaming disorder as a condition that needs further research in the 11th edition of International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), citing an increase in the development of treatment programmes across the world.

Speaking of addiction, one thing that the vast majority of the population across the globe has gotten hooked on to, is smart phones. They have not only become a predominant part of our lives and lifestyles, but they have also started to creep into our physical and mental health in a negative way.

A study suggested that 48 per cent of those who spent five or more hours a day on their phones — a lot of time by any measure — had thought about suicide or made plans for it, vs 28 per cent of those who spent only one hour per day on their phones.

“The attention span of a person is short, as people are always on the phone. You are not able to take a break and enjoy the moment you are in. Most of the time is taken up by that. So much of mental energy is taken up by it, that a person might feel sleep deprived at night. Relationships are not given importance as people are on the phone all the time. There are psychological consequences to being on the phone all the time. Intelligence, focus, attention become half-baked,” she said.

Although professional help is the first option to treat someone suffering from a mental disorder, there are certain things that people can do to ensure the well being of their mental health and keep their mind and body fit and active.

“Get enough sleep. If you can’t afford eight hours of sleep, get at least six hours of sleep. Stop looking at your phone if you wake up in the middle of the night. Keep your body hydrated and fed. At the end of the day, do some activity to unwind from the day’s work. Most people are ignorant. Sit down in the evening or go for a walk. And write down what happened during the day or jot down the tasks for the next day, so it doesn’t feel like you are carrying many things in your head,” said Anuya.

“I think taking care of your health should be a top priority because the mind and brain control everything. When you do that, you take care of your health, life, your creativity and relations. Mindfulness, yoga, meditation, spirituality are all becoming trendy too, and are coming back into people’s consciousness,” she said.

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