Counselling centres take novel approach to wean players off the obsession
IF YOU cannot stop them, join them – in playing online games. And while they play, help them beat that crippling gaming addiction that is eating away at healthy outdoor time, fostering aggression and desensitising youth to violence.Two years ago, when he first went to Touch Cyber Wellness, Randy (not his real name), now 15, had a gaming addiction problem: He was playing 42 hours every week. At the cyber wellness education and counselling agency, which also has video and local area network (LAN) gaming facilities, Randy plays video games with his counsellors and other children with the same problem.
But there is this difference: He is given a clear limit on the time allowed on the computer, and his counsellors – former obsessive gamers themselves – take him out to play sports like basketball. Sometimes, they go rock-climbing. The counsellors also keep a close watch for aggression, discouraging it and teaching the children how to handle such emotion. They also supervise study groups, so homework gets done. Today, Randy spends just 10 hours a week on video games. But his is not an isolated case – far from it.
Nearly 9 per cent of young people in Singapore are “pathological gamers”, addicts who spend an average of 37.5 hours a week playing video games, a local study found last week. The study, which was helmed by Dr Angeline Khoo of the National Institute of Education (NIE) and published in Annals, a Singapore medical journal, was conducted on 3,000 primary and secondary students. Schoolwork, social life and family relationships are suffering because of the addiction.
Counselling centre Touch Cyber Wellness, run by voluntary welfare group Touch Community Services, is seeing more worried parents taking children to its counselling programme. This year, it has seen 82 cases so far, compared with only 38 for the whole of 2006. Last year, there were 51. Touch’s novel approach to the problem is premised on the reality that video games cannot be eliminated totally. “We are not against gaming, but it should not affect one’s studies and social life,” said a Touch spokesman.
Ms June Tang, a counsellor with the National Addictions Management Service, managed by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), agrees. “It is often impractical for one to cease gaming completely,” she said. IMH runs two Child Guidance Clinics with counselors specialising in working with children and teenagers. Their CyberWIZ programme educates parents and helps children who are hooked on computer games.
Rather than cutting them off from gaming, counsellors try to set limits on the hours of play. Underlying reasons for gaming, like a tendency to escape, are also explored. “Many young people turn to gaming to escape from real-world problems,” observed Ms Tang.
The clinics refer patients to activity groups that will teach them social and life skills. The Singapore Children’s Society (SCS) runs Roundbox, an activity centre where young people can play PlayStation games, pool and futsal under adult supervision. They can also sign up for classes like hip-hop dancing, free of charge. Dr Carol Balhetchet, SCS’ director of youth services, said playing in supervised groups allows healthy gaming habits to be cultivated.
“Video games can aggravate violence in children, and after playing for about three hours, they can become desensitised,” said Dr Balhetchet. With supervision, such behaviours can be monitored, she added. Said Randy sheepishly: “Earlier, whenever my younger sister wanted to use the computer at home, I would whack her till she ended up crying. Now, I am more patient – I will ask her to wait awhile.”
HELP THAT GAMING ADDICTS GET AT YOUTH CENTRES
Clear limit set on the time allowed on the computer.
Taken out to play sports or other outdoor activities.
Watched for aggression; taught how to handle such emotions.
Supervised in study groups; homework gets done.
How other countries approach problem
The country started the world’s first boot camp for gaming addicts in 2007. Participants go through a military-style programme that includes intensive exercise and rehabilitation. A gaming “curfew” also looks set to be imposed, with a Bill due to be submitted in Parliament this month. It seeks to bar underage users from selected online games after midnight.
It implemented a new law in 2007 restricting players under 18 from more than three hours of online play. Parents can also turn to more than 200 organisations offering treatments such as boot camps. There are also about 300 Internet addiction centres to treat people with excessive gaming habits.
It became the first country in Europe to open a “detox” clinic with an in-house treatment programme for obsessive gamers in 2006. Clients undergo four to eight weeks of therapy, which also aims to build their interest in activities to replace gaming.
The country opened its first Internet addiction centre, reStart, last year in Washington. The centre offers a 45-day programme at the cost of US$14,000 (S$18,300), intended to help people ease off on pathological computer use. In 2002, non-profit organization On-Line Gamers Anonymous introduced a 12-step, self-help programme for video-gaming addiction. Its website also has message boards for people to share experiences and offer advice to one another.