STRESS caused by academic and family pressure could be linked to the worrying number of young Singaporeans hooked on video games, researchers said yesterday. They are carrying out further studies to find out why nearly 9 per cent of youngsters are addicted to computer gaming, and how to help them. National University of Singapore (NUS) Assistant Professor Choo Hyekyung said school and family-related stress is one factor likely to feature prominently. She declined to give further details. The new research follows the release on Tuesday of Singapore’s first comprehensive study of video game addiction.
Of the 8.7 per cent of students deemed pathological – having problems controlling their gaming – 54 per cent said stress was one reason they play games. Addicts spend about 37.5 hours a week gaming – double the 18.8 hours spent by ordinary youngsters. The study of 3,000 students aged nine to 14 was published in the Annals of the Academy of Medicine Singapore, and was carried out by researchers from NUS, the National Institute of Education (NIE), Iowa State University and Hong Kong Polytechnic University. The same institutions are conducting the follow-up studies.
Alarmingly, 7 per cent of all students polled had shoplifted games or stolen money to pay for them. And 24 per cent of those deemed addicts cut classes to play, while more than half quarreled with their parents over their habit. The problem has prompted the Government to take action. In August, it announced it had set aside $10 million to fund cyber-wellness projects over the next five years.
Parents such as marketing manager Irene Goh, 42, are also concerned. “Video games do seem to be becoming a problem for society,” said the mother of two teenage boys, who had her first gaming-related family fight earlier this year. Touch Cyber Wellness, an agency that counsels young people with pathological gaming behaviour, said parents are right to be worried. Its spokesman said the effects of such behaviour are “not trivial” as addicts suffer “poorer school performance, poorer self-control and even poor health”. But others, including one of the researchers behind Tuesday’s study, are more sanguine.
NIE associate professor Angeline Khoo said that “given the comparable rates with other countries, we shouldn’t be overly concerned and over-react...There are also a lot of benefits to games.” Of eight other countries in which similar studies have been conducted, Singapore ranks fifth-worst. The proportion of problem gamers here is slightly higher than in the United States (8.5 per cent) and Australia (8 per cent). However the problem is much less severe than in Germany and South Korea, which reported 11.9 per cent and 10.2 per cent addiction rates respectively.
Mr Daniel Koh of counselling practice Insights Mind Centre has this advice for parents: They must not “just cut off gaming”. They also need to help their children take up another “good and fun” activity like sports to replace the habit, he said. “Many parents simply tell their children to stop playing, but to the child, the word ‘stop’ may mean they have to do something boring like homework...The child may take up other bad habits like smoking or drinking to kill time.”
Dr Thomas Lee, head of the addiction medicine department at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), said the danger of gaming, compared with other forms of addiction, is that a person can get far too immersed in the virtual world and, as a result, not realise he or she has a problem. “If the gaming addiction persists into adulthood, it may jeopardise the person’s work, family and relationships. He may also have few friends,” said Dr Lee.
Some do not mind spending all their free time gaming, however. Engineer Lionel Tan, 27, plays World of Warcraft for 40 hours a week, but says he is not addicted and that his work has not suffered: “Everybody is playing games on Facebook or iPhone or Xbox for hours every day. Maybe some will get addicted. So what? It’s still better than taking drugs or gambling, right?”
The Education Ministry said yesterday that it “believes education is the key in our efforts to address the issue of gaming addiction”. A spokesman said the topic of games addiction is covered at the primary school level and expanded to Internet addiction at the secondary level. IMH saw nearly 2,000 patients for addiction problems last year at its National Addictions Management Service. Of these, 4 per cent suffer from behavioural addictions, which include video gaming and sex addiction. Drug addicts form the largest proportion at 49 per cent. This is followed by alcohol and gambling at 27 per cent and 17 per cent respectively.