The dark side of online gaming: Why it is not all fun and games

Psychologists weigh in as Madras High Court expresses concern over growing gaming addiction among Indian youth.

BySumit Jha

Published Oct 15, 2022 | 12:00 PMUpdated Oct 15, 2022 | 12:00 PM

The dark side of online gaming: Why it is not all fun and games

Psychologists and psychiatrists have welcomed the interest of the Madras High Court in the health and psychological impact of online games, but say the issue should be handled gently.

They were reacting to the court taking suo moto cognizance of the increase in addiction to online gaming among India’s youth, which it said had become a major public health issue.

Hearing a habeas corpus petition relating to a missing girl addicted to online games, a division bench noted on Thursday, 13 October, that such addiction “has taken a heavy toll” on the physical, emotional, psychological, social, and academic life of India’s youth.

Court observations

The bench, comprising Justices R Mahadevan and J Sathya Narayana Prasad, also noted that “by such addiction, the younger generation becomes prey to ophthalmic issues, musculo-skeletal issues, neck ailments, obesity, anxiety, and depression.”

The court wondered “how these types of online games, which damage the life of younger generation, are permitted despite the ban imposed by the Government of India”, and directed the Registrar General (Judicial) to take certain steps in a bid to curb the problem.

The steps included regulating YouTube Channels that provided tutorials on installing pirated versions of banned games, and directing the central government to effectively ban games and also create awareness of their harmful impact.

What psychiatrists/psychologists say

Psychiatrists and psychologists South First spoke to welcomed the Madras High Court’s observations and directives, but also said the issue should be dealt with gently. The reasons they cited are listed below:

Online games give acknowledgment

According to Hyderabad-based psychologist Dr Prashant Naresh Reddy, the younger generation is drawn to the “inspiring features” of online games and consequently gets immersed in them, losing interest in studies, social life, or any healthy hobby.

“They remain absorbed in these types of online games, lose track of real-world happenings, and keep playing without sleep during night time,” he said.

Online games

It’s easy to get addicted to online gaming. But difficult to get out. (Creative Commons)

“Sleep deprivation results in a heavy toll on their physical and mental health.”

Dr Manoj Sharma, clinical psychologist at the Service for Healthy Use of Technology Clinic, NIMHANS, said what attracted the youth, and often even adults, was the sense of recognition they get playing these games, something they don’t get in the real world.

“They feel connected with different people which some may be lacking in the real world. There is also a sense of achievement. This combination makes them believe this (online) world is better, and where they can excel,” Dr Sharma said.

But this can be extremely dangerous, he warned, especially when children begin to think they can build a career in gaming.

“All that is needed is about 10-12 hours a day to develop the skills,” Dr Sharma said. “This process leads them to disconnect from their parents, families and friends. If parents protest, they start showing behavioural changes, get aggressive, violent and depressed.”

Getting out is harder

This brings us to the next problem, said Dr Sharma: Getting out of the immersive world.

According to him, this is harder than we think, as gaming addicts get pleasure by closing out the world from their reality.

“It releases dopamine, a hormone that pleases people. When you stop the release of the pleasure hormones, the body will start behaving differently. So it cannot be done automatically with a snap of a finger, and the de-addiction process should be followed properly,” he said.

There is a related problem, said Dr Mazhar Ali, a psychiatrist based in Hyderabad: Withdrawal symptoms may lead to aggressive thoughts.

In his view, there are several ways parents can help their children wean away from the addiction.

“The best way to deal with it is to start talking to them and let them play intermittently, and not ask them to stop playing altogether, or take away the phone,” Dr Ali said.

Taking away phone not the answer

In fact, he stressed that devices should never be taken from addicted kids, as they were bound to find ways to continue playing, most likely outside the home.

Abruptly taking away the phone is not the answer. (Creative Commons)

Dr Ali’s advice: “Talk with your child, and set time limits. You may reduce the playtime gradually from three hours a day to two, one and so on. Encourage them to remain on schedule.”

In this connection, Dr Sharma warned against losing one’s cool as a parent. “When both children and their parents get angry, nothing works between them,” he said.

Instead, Dr Sharma advocated talking to the children about their addiction only when they are calm. “Do not belittle them, put them on any pedestal or make judgement in front of them,” he cautioned.

If nothing works, Dr Sharma said, “Consult a therapist”.

Related: TN ordinance banning online gambling, regulating online games

What the WHO says

World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2020 classified “Gaming Disorder” in the International Classification of Diseases.

It defined gaming behavior (“digital-gaming” or “video-gaming”) as characterised by:

  • Impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities.
  • Continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.

Also, a recent study published in the journal Heart Rhythm found that video games may seem like a sedentary activity — but the adrenaline rush they give can trigger deadly heart rhythms in susceptible children.

Games can cause an uncommon but distinct pattern of arrhythmic heartbeats, which has even caused death in some kids with cardiac issues.