Risk of Net addiction growing in S'pore

With the Internet becoming more pervasive and computers integral tools in schools, at work and in homes, more in Singapore are now at risk of becoming addicted, note field workers.
Written by Vivian Yeo, Contributor

With more households owning computers and the Internet becoming increasingly pervasive in Singapore, the likelihood of a bigger proportion of the population hooked on online activities such as games is now higher, according to field workers.

Sim Ngee Mong, senior social worker at Covenant Family Service Centre (FSC), said in an e-mail interview that the risk factor for computer addiction is "going up". He runs a computer addiction resource Web site, which is a project of the Covenant FSC.

"Schools are pushing students to do more work on the computer," he noted. "The government is supporting the games industry by encouraging people to take up courses to develop games even though [the authorities are] not actively supporting [game-playing] as a sport."

Lim Hui Khim, deputy head of counseling and senior counselor for the Institute of Mental Health's (IMH) National Addictions Management Service (NAMS), pointed to a higher prevalence of Internet or online game addiction in recent years. Accessibility to the Web, she told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail, is a major contributing reason for the trend.

"While most families [did] not even own a computer 20 years ago, today, Singapore is one of the most wired nations in the world with Internet access present in nearly every family," she explained. "Children get on the computer at a younger age and, like television, it becomes a convenient way to keep them occupied."

The PC has also become an integral tool for education, she added, noting that it is "not uncommon" for students' homework to be posted online.

Symptoms less 'visual'
According to the two professionals, Net and game addictions may not be given the same level of attention as other compulsions such as gambling and drugs, even though problems associated with the earlier two obsessions can be serious.

An Internet addict is typically someone who spends more than five hours a day on the computer and craves more time on the PC, neglects family and other social activities, and exhibits irritability or emptiness when not engaged in online activities. For students, it could mean a lack of sleep, inability to concentrate in school, and failing tests and exams.

"Very often, the gamer does not realize that he or she has a problem as they are often 'caught' in the world of virtual reality," explained Lim. As their brain is constantly stimulated by the game or computer, they find the real world too boring and slow. Hence, they constantly go back to playing the game or [staying on the] computer to find the stimulation."

Those who are hooked end up losing track of time and their own physical needs, exhibiting poor self-care and stress management, she said.

The consequences of online addiction can be extremely severe, too. In a recent case that shocked South Korea, a couple was so addicted to an online game, they failed to provide adequate care to their three-month-old daughter, causing her to eventually starve to death. Both husband and wife were sentenced in May to two years of jail term for negligence.

In a separate case, a 22-year-old Korean male killed his mother because he could not tolerate her nagging at his online game habits. The Korea Herald reported that the man had headed off to a nearby Internet café to indulge in his game immediately after committing the crime.

Covenant FSC's Sim added that gaming or Net dependence is a concern because an addict's symptoms are "not very visible" compared with, say, drug addicts who may be easily distinguished by red eyes or an inability to focus. Similarly, alcoholics and smokers have tell-tale signs and gamblers may be identified by the occurrence of debts.

"This means there may be many cases that have not been identified, which may lead [people] to believe that [Net addiction] is not a serious problem," he said.

Sim, whose cases revolve around clients voluntarily seeking help at the FSC, counsels an average of 10 computer addiction cases a year. These clients initiate contact with the center via phone. About 20 to 30 "concerned parents" also show up at workshops he conducts.

The typical profile would be a Chinese boy in his teens, he said. The youngest case he has encountered was a Primary 4 student. However, addicts are not necessarily restricted to the younger generation, said Sim.

Regulation necessary?
Countries such as China and Korea have announced initiatives or plans for regulations to combat online game addiction.

China's Ministry of Culture last month, in a move seen to curb Internet game addiction, stipulated that players who wish to engage in online games must register with the proper credentials. The regulations are slated to come into effect Aug. 1.

According to a Jun. 19 report by China Daily, about 14 percent of China's population, or 33 million, are addicted to the Web.

The Korea Herald reported in April that the government was looking to regulate the online game industry. According to a separate report, research by Korea's Ministry of Public Administration and Security in 2009 showed that 12.8 percent of Korean teenagers were hooked on the Internet.

Convenant FSC's Sim noted that South Korea and China are seen to "have the biggest problem" when it comes to online game addiction, if the many clinics set up in the two countries to deal with this problem are an indication. South Korea, he pointed out, is one of the most wired nations, while China has the world's largest population.

As for Singapore, there are estimates that put addiction levels at 5 to 10 percent, he said.

According to Sim, having regulations to curb addiction does make sense in a society like Singapore where the government has previously stepped in to dictate certain behaviors, such as ensuring that one provides financially for aged parents.

"Of course, the state would not like to [have to] do this and would rather individuals know how to do their duty," he said. "But if you were to ask parents, they would naturally like the state to have [such a] regulation because it would make their job easier. If their child is beyond parental control, they can go to court to apply for an order to put the child in [a] home."

Sim, however, acknowledged that whether or not regulations are necessary is "a tough question to answer". He noted that there are also other issues to consider, such as the effectiveness of the regulations and what problems they might create.

While there are currently no regulations in Singapore specifically addressing Net or online game addiction, the Media Development Authority in 2008 enforced a Mature 18 (M18) classification for video games sold in the country. Retailers of titles that have been classified as M18 are required to conduct checks to ascertain that buyers are at least 18 years old. A separate classification, Age Advisory, is used for video games suitable for those aged 16 and above.

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