Stay ahead of the game

Signs to watch out for in young adults, and ways to tackle the phenomenon of cyberbullying.
Last Updated 08 September 2017, 19:18 IST

In the era of technology and a changing social fabric, cyberbullying and gaming are here to stay, if we don’t understand them better and support our youth. Unlike many physical health-related epidemics that affect populations rapidly and disappear, epidemics related to mental illnesses are sneaky, insidious beasts that silently grow within. Symptoms of mental ailments may not even be apparent until it is too late.

With the help of strong triggers like cyberbullying and gaming, mental illnesses have been silently taking lives worldwide by pushing the victims to take extreme measures like suicide. Cyberbullying and gaming are different, although both may escalate to a crisis point abruptly or gradually.

Negative influences
Cyberbullying is the overt or covert misuse of cyberspace and technology to pressurise, trouble or incite someone. It is linked to pressures from disgruntled peers or social deviants. Some studies have suggested that cyberbullying is far more dangerous than traditional bullying, as the victim feels trapped. Consequences of online abuse are distressing and can be devastating.

Victims are usually children or adolescents who are shy, socially awkward, with body-image difficulties and those who have had harsh early-life experiences like being separated from a parent or abused by one. These individuals are prone to anxiety, depression and some of them may even be suffering from a pre-existing mental illness. Online abuse may worsen their condition further.

Here are some of the common effects of cyberbullying:

  • Damaged self-esteem and confidence.
  • Altered societal perceptions about the victim, family and family dysfunction.
  • Chronic stress, which leads to changes in hormone levels causing health problems and stress-related conditions.
  • Areas of the brain connected to mental trauma, emotionality, fear, anxiety and sadness may get stimulated.
  • Mental illnesses (anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder), self-harm, suicidal tendencies, body-image disturbances and eating disorders in extreme cases.

Gaming, on the other hand, has a voluntary, motivational component with instant rewards — points, positive feedback or entry to the next level of the game. Youngsters who are vulnerable to obsessive compulsive disorders, those who have addictive behaviours, naïve children (autistic or suffering from learning disorders) and impulsive children (with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) may turn to gaming for the instant gratification, and the rush of adrenaline it gives.

Addictions & thrills
Ease of use, accessibility and a range of apps promoting gaming formats for everything, from entertainment to education or skill-building, can make gaming a way of life. The thrill-seeking and high (visual and auditory) stimulation that gaming embeds in young minds may become the prerequisite for experiencing a sense of achievement. Reality and daily routine can seem mundane, causing gaming addiction.

Let’s take a look at the few common negative outcomes of gaming:

  • Social withdrawal, loss of friendships, financial difficulties and ultimately isolation.
  • Worsening of pre-existing attention deficit or hyperactivity disorder.
  • Substance misuse or dependence.
  • Mental illnesses like depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and addiction.

The infamous ‘Blue Whale’ phenomenon is a sneaky mix of both gaming and cyberbullying. Cleverly innocuous on the surface, this alarming game tricks youngsters into thinking that it is a normal and fun game, similar to a game with challenges. The cyberbullying component within this game is covert — the challenges gradually sensitise adolescents to escalating dangerous behaviours. Here is a guideline for parents, educators and responsible adults to manage this epidemic:

Be aware of your child’s web-surfing habits and friends.

Maintain daily communication and build a relationship based on mutual trust with children and young adults you are responsible for.

Be vigilant to sudden changes in their behaviour like withdrawal from daily routine, changes in social life, sleep patterns, self-care, appetite, emotionality and unexplained injuries.

Watch out for excessive use of technology, especially if it is a change to previous behavioural patterns.

Keep yourself updated about societal trends and find out if there are any suggestive games, music videos or negative content that is doing the rounds online.

Get to know your child’s preferences and interests in a broad range of things, from music to social media. Encourage healthier interests like music, art or sport.

Educate your children about the dangers of technology and channel their use of technology towards fun learning.

Limit the use of cellphones or computers, and encourage real-time relationships within families and schools, as opposed to spending too much time on social media.

Communication between parents, school and the justice system is vital, supported by awareness programmes at various levels, ranging from open fora at schools or colleges to government-led initiatives.

If you are a parent, consult a qualified specialist in child and adolescent mental health, without worrying about stigma and taboo. An expert will comprehensively assess risk and mental state in children and adolescents and tackle the issue in a timely manner.

(The author is a senior consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist and medical educator.)

(Published 08 September 2017, 18:39 IST)

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