Anand*, a jovial extroverted 15-year-old in Bengaluru, got a personal smartphone for the first time last year when schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and online classes began. Within six months, he was on the phone for more than seven hours each day, not for classes but rather to binge on online games.
Worried about the sudden behaviour changes in their teenager — insomnia, withdrawal from social contacts, academic failure, and extreme anger and irritability — his parents took him to the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences’ aptly named SHUT clinic, which stands for the Service for Healthy Use of Technology. Their son was diagnosed with gaming addiction, a disorder that is quickly growing as the pandemic spurred an increased use of Internet devices.
“We used to get maybe two-three cases a week. Now, we are seeing about 15 cases, almost all of whom are adolescents brought in by their parents. Our research shows that gaming addictions are present in adults as well, but they are not taking it seriously yet,” said SHUT clinic coordinator Manoj Sharma, a clinical psychology Professor at NIMHANS.
According to the All India Gaming Federation, India’s online gaming industry is expected to be worth ₹15,500 crore by 2023. A 2019 survey by the U.S.-based Limelight Networks found that India had the second largest number of gamers after South Korea, and while time spent online is still not as high as in other countries, it found that almost a quarter of adult Indian gamers had missed work while playing games.
The World Health Organization categorised gaming disorder as a mental health condition in 2018, but as the pandemic increased screen time across age groups, concerns have been growing. Last month, China limited gamers under 18 years to just three hours of online games per week, during specified times, and made the industry responsible for enforcing the restriction.
In India, legal focus has been on recent laws in the southern States seeking to ban online games such as rummy, poker or even fantasy sports which offer prize money or financial stakes. Last week, the Kerala High Court quashed such a law in the State, accepting the industry’s stance that, as games of skill rather than chance, they should not trigger bans on gambling. However, worried parents, psychiatrists and mental health advocates warn that the dangers go well beyond monetary motivations.
“We need to look at gaming addictions beyond the financial aspects of gambling. That is only one kind of harm. Ultimately, we have seen gaming addictions cause physical, social and emotional damages, impairing sleep, appetites, careers and social lives,” says Samir Parikh, a psychiatrist who heads the mental health department at Fortis Healthcare.
NIMHANS’ Dr Sharma and fellow researchers published a case study in the Industrial Psychiatry Journal last year illustrating the “pathways of migration from gaming to gambling”. They found that a 14 year old addicted to online games without monetary rewards later became addicted to online poker with financial stakes in his early 20s. “Individuals who played more social casino games (online games where you do not either bet or win or lose real money) and won occasionally, usually developed a craving and urge for betting real money in the anticipation of winning,” said the paper.
A Delhi-based NGO named the Distress Management Collective documented other ways in which online gaming could lead to financial distress. “For a poor family, even the money needed to recharge a mobile phone to feed a gaming addiction can bankrupt a family. We have found so many cases of young people who stole money, borrowed money, failed exams, even committed suicide because of this,” said the NGO’s head Deepa Joseph, who filed a PIL in the Delhi High Court in July, appealing for government policy to regulate the industry. “There is a big mafia behind online games, but they are making profits from the distress of young people,” she added.
Psychiatrists recommend that as a bare minimum, statutory warnings and mandatory breaks should be enforced to prevent binge gaming. “Among those who are just beginning excessive use, enforcing breaks after a stipulated time will improve control and prevent bingeing. But among those already addicted, it may not help, as they will just log on a different platform or using a different user name,” said Dr. Sharma. Media literacy in schools and digital fasting among families are also important steps to combat the disorder, he added.
*Name changed to protect privacy