Can’t stop playing candy crush — when does it become a problem?

Do you ever:

  • feel “high” while playing an online/smartphone/video/computer game?
  • feel the need to play for longer to get “high”?
  • feel irritable, cranky, or grumpy when you’re not playing the game?
  • find it difficult not to play the game?
  • find that playing the game is the most important thing in your day?
  • spend less time on (home)work or chores so that you can play for longer?
  • spend less time with friends/family so that you play for longer?
  • hide the amount of time you spend playing the game from friends/family?

Too much of a good thing?

How many questions above did you answer yes to?

According to a 2010 local study of 3,000 primary and secondary school children, 9 out of 100 children met the criteria for pathological gaming. This is somewhat higher than the 8% found to have 5 or more signs of a gaming addiction in a 2009 nationwide study of 1,178 American children aged 8 to 18 years. But as many as 10 and 11% of children meet the same criteria in South Korea and Germany respectively. While researchers are still investigating the extent of internet addiction among local children (a study is underway), it would appear that addiction to gaming is a real problem here.

A 2010 PBS documentary feature (e.g., One Game Too Many video) on children addicted to online gaming put the spotlight on South Korea, where children attend boot camps to achieve gaming rehabilitation. A 2013 CNN series on Gaming Reality illustrate that the problem has yet to go away. The 250-odd boot camps in China speak also to a bigger problem.

But restricting children from playing games is unrealistic to take. So what’s are parents to do?

1. Touch Cyber Wellness advocates selecting games which are age-appropriate and setting consistent boundaries to help children limit their gaming.

2. Parents can encourage their children and teenagers to take an interest in sports, exercise, hobbies, and other activities. Parents can practice what they preach by taking their children with them. Cyber Wellness counsellors take their charges rock-climbing or for a game of basketball. Cycling or roller-blading after roti prata and ice milo sounds like a Saturday morning well-spent to most!

3. Gaming can be a way to de-stress and it’s important for gaming not to be an escape outlet for teenagers who are experiencing signs and symptoms of depression and/or anxiety.

4. A 2014 study suggests that children of parents with a history of addictions are at risk for developing problem behaviours of their own. Parental controls could play an important role in pre-empting excessive gaming behaviours.

5. Those who perceived their parents to be not warm or caring towards them when they were children, were relatively more likely have an internet addiction, according to a 2014 study on young Greek adults. Keeping a channel of communication open between parents and children could therefore be important in preventing children from using gaming as strategy for managing family-related and homework stress.

6. A 2011 study on Dutch teenagers suggested that those with poorer social skills were among those who were likely to report problem gaming behaviours 6 months later. Parents can help by providing their teens with social and emotional support.

7. Teenagers who exhibit signs and symptoms of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and those who display hostility can be vulnerable to internet addiction, according to a 2009 study of 2, 293 Taiwanese 7th-graders. Parents may need to uphold rules and boundaries to help their teenagers (and children) regulate their playtime.

8. Depression and social phobia are among the outcomes of pathological gaming, according to the local 2011 study mentioned earlier (this study also finds lower social competence and impulsivity to be risk factors – see points #6 and #7 above).

8. It’s important to remember that games are not all bad. It depends on the nature of the game. Games which reward players for helping others, have a positive effect on children: Players show empathy and prosocial helping behaviours in their daily lives. Parents can encourage their children to play games which reward and reinforce desirable behaviours.

10. Games can be beneficial when played to challenge our brains. But we do need to recognize unhealthy gaming when we see it.