Pri 5 pupil skipped meals, stole from parents to feed gaming addiction
He was so obsessed with computer gaming that he neglected his family, studies and his health.
Jacob (not his real name) often became ill and weak as a result of skipping meals - something he sacrificed to feed his addiction.
He would also steal from his parents when he didn't have enough cash. The primary school pupil spent long hours at cybercafes, staying out as late as 11pm, as his grades plummeted.
It reached a point where his father gave up and was even prepared to see his son drop out of school.
That was before Touch Cyber Wellness counsellor Cynthia Khoo stepped in, helped Jacob break free of his addiction and set him on the path to recovery.
Jacob's problem is reflective of the alarming rise in the number of gaming addicts.
His father told The New Paper: "I tried everything to make my son listen to me but it only made him more rebellious. I want to thank Cynthia because she gave me my son back."
Jacob, who is now in secondary school, told TNP last week that his gaming addiction started with an innocuous visit with his friends to a cybercafe when he was in Primary 5.
He watched in awe as his friends sprayed bullets at each other in the first-person shooter game Blackshot.
When they asked him to play, he was initially reluctant but eventually succumbed to peer pressure.
"They asked me to play with them but I was really lousy at first. They laughed at me and called me a noob (newbie)," he said.
It made Jacob determined to improve his gaming skills and, over the next half a year, he spent long hours every day in cybercafes, glued to computer screens.
It didn't help that both his parents worked long hours at their restaurant and usually left him alone at home.
Even on school days, Jacob would play till 11pm, lying to his parents that he was at a friend's place.
Other than paying for the hourly fee of $3 at cybercafes, Jacob also spent heavily on in-game credits to buy better virtual weapons.
He estimated he spent about $500 to $600 con his gaming habit, often skipping meals and even stealing from his parents to do so.
"There was the thrill, adrenaline and that quick rush whenever you made a kill. It made me want more," he said.
The game has a leaderboard - a ranking system based on score - that Jacob and his friends worked hard to ascend for bragging rights.
But as his virtual character levelled up, his real-life grades took a dive.
From As and Bs, he started getting Cs and Fs, prompting his school to send him for counselling at Touch Cyber Wellness.
Jacob's father, 67, said: "I confiscated his laptop, scolded him and threatened to punish him but nothing worked. Perhaps our age gap was too wide and I didn't understand technology then."
He added that he was resigned to Jacob failing his PSLE and subsequently dropping out of school.
"But Touch called us up and told us that it was counselling my son for free. I said, go ahead. It turned out to be the best thing," he said.
Ms Khoo, 35, who has been a counsellor since 2004, recounted that Jacob was very shy and spoke little when they first met.
"Perhaps it was due to his limited interaction with his family and people in the real world. But after a while, he started opening up," she said.
Jacob attended counselling sessions every fortnight and also joined the centre's study groups. But the gaming habit was hard to kick.
"My friends kept asking me why I stopped playing. Even when I was at home trying to study, my mind was still at the cybercafe. At that time, all I wanted to do was play," he said.
He slowly weaned himself off gaming and replaced it with more healthy activities, such as exercising.
"Whenever I felt like I wanted to play, I would go for a jog or play basketball," said Jacob.
"The counsellors taught me that I must be in control of the game, not the other way around."
Jacob did well enough for his PSLE to make it to a secondary school in central Singapore.
Since entering his new school, he has completely quit gaming.
On Monday, Jacob's father lauded Ms Khoo for turning his son around.
"She was patient and very caring. She spent a lot of time with him, trying to talk to him and would even take him for outings," he said.
"My son has become close to my wife and me again. I am very grateful for Ms Khoo's efforts."
What has Jacob learnt from this?
"I've learnt that letting gaming affect my studies and my life was not worth it. If I see someone I care about in the same situation, I would tell him or her that there are more important things in life."
Touch called us up and told us that it was counselling my son for free. I said, go ahead. It turned out to be the best thing.
- Jacob's father
BY THE NUMBERS
$250 Average amount spent by each Singaporean gamer on games across all platforms last year.
130 Cases of gaming addiction that Touch Cyber Wellness dealt with from January to October this year. The number of cases for the whole of last year was 120.
Touch Cyber Wellness
National Addictions Management Service
Fei Yue Community Services - Project 180 (Youth Services)
Mobile games fuelling cyber addiction: Counsellor
HELPFUL: Touch Cyber Wellness counsellors Chong Ee Jay (above) and Cynthia Khoo (below). TNP PHOTOS: CHOO CHWEE HUA
It seems that being addicted to gaming can affect even very young children.
Mr Chong Ee Jay, a counsellor and a manager with Touch Cyber Wellness, said he has seen one addict who was just six years old.
The boy was hooked on the game Angry Birds and would smash his parents' phones whenever he lost at the game.
The number of those addicted to gaming appears to be on the rise.
In the last 10 months, the centre saw a 10 per cent increase in counselling cases handled by its helpline compared to the whole of last year.
One reason for this, said Mr Chong, is that most people now own a computer or a mobile phone.
He said: "There's more freedom to pick up a gadget and start playing. It's become a trend, a social norm, and it's now easier to get into the habit."
Children are not the only ones who get hooked.
Mr Chong said he has seen cases where parents themselves were addicted to games.
"There was a young girl who called in and sought help for her mother, who was addicted to Candy Crush," he said.
But he added that gaming should not be seen as a harmful "drug".
"There are benefits of gaming as well. I've seen parents use Angry Birds to teach geometry to their children. There are educational values."
First-person shooter games such as Counter-Strike can help with one's psychomotor skills while others, like Minecraft, could foster creativity.
Fellow counsellor Cynthia Khoo said it is also unhealthy for parents to starve their children of video games.
"Parents have to recognise that their children are going through a phase of life where they are trying to connect with their friends via games," she said.
"If you forbid them from playing, it'll create a void in their life - that's not healthy."
She said that the way to manage a child's gaming habits is to foster a strong offline relationship.
"Know what your child is going through and be open with them so they will come to you."
There was a young girl who called in and sought help for her mother, who was addicted to Candy Crush.
- Mr Chong Ee Jay, a counsellor, on how game addiction is not limited to just children
How gaming almost ruined my life
I used to be glued to a computer screen in a dark room for hours while my grades slipped away.
Like Jacob, I had a dark period in my secondary school life when I was addicted to gaming.
In Secondary 1, I was third in my class, scoring As and Bs.
But things changed after a class outing to a cybercafe during the school holidays that year.
While I started patronising gaming cafes on a regular basis, I thought it was then a harmless habit as it was still the holidays.
But when Secondary 2 rolled around, I found myself continuing to do so.
For about half a year, I rushed out of school as soon as the dismissal bell sounded and headed for the nearest cybercafe.
Never mind that I had homework to do. All I craved then was beating my friends in games such as Counter-Strike and Warcraft 3.
I even visited the cybercafes during my mid-term examinations, after each paper.
I lied to my parents about why I was staying out late after school.
My grades dropped to Bs and Cs.
I then realised I was losing control of my life but I was afraid to turn to anyone for help because I did not want my parents to find out and to punish or ground me.
With less than four months to sort myself out before my Secondary 2 final-year exams, I resolved to go cold turkey.
Every day after school, I stayed at home and stared at textbooks that made little sense to me.
My mind was still at the cybercafe.
Peer pressure was another issue I had to contend with as my friends would ask why I stopped playing.
It took two months for the craving to play to ebb.
Slowly, I regained control of my life and studies.
I finished second in my class.
Today, I still game regularly - admittedly for hours on end during weekends - but I set a timer and recognise there are more important things and people in my life.
Computer games are entertaining and can even boost cognitive skills, said a study by American Psychologist.
But an overdose, like most things, will turn poisonous.
That's why what Touch Cyber Wellness counsellor Cynthia Khoo said to Jacob struck a chord: "You control the game, not the other way around."
I remain determined that it will never ruin my life again.
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