Digital Dilemma: Safeguarding Children’s Minds in the Digital Era of Online and Gaming Addiction


In recent years, the impact of social media on the mental health of young adults in Malaysia has garnered significant attention. According to the 2022 National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS), one in four adolescents reported feeling depressed, with one in eight adolescents aged 10-19 facing a mental disorder and a distressing one in ten reporting suicidal ideation. These numbers have also risen today compared to over a decade ago. As young adults increasingly engage with social media, concerns about its impact on mental health have grown, with studies revealing that it can lead to cyberbullying, anxiety, and depression.

In conjunction with World Mental Health Day, Dr Tee Bee Chin, a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist from Sunway Medical Centre, Sunway City, explores the impact of online and gaming addiction among children in Malaysia.

Spotting the Signs, Symptoms, and Diagnosis of Online and Gaming Addiction in Children
Dr Tee Bee Chin, an advocate for children’s mental health, emphasises the importance of early recognition of online and gaming addiction signs that could signify underlying struggles, saying, “Online and gaming addiction is pervasive, often emerging as a secondary issue rooted in underlying primary challenges such as learning difficulties, social conflicts with peers, and familial disputes. It can manifest through signs such as withdrawal from real-life activities, increased tolerance for screen time, and a preoccupation with online activities. We use standardised criteria to diagnose addiction, considering factors like the time spent online, its impact on daily life, and unsuccessful attempts to cut down usage.”

The Adverse Impact of Online and Gaming Addiction on Children’s Mental Health
Highlighting the impact of online and gaming addiction among children in Malaysia, especially on their mental health, Dr Tee states, “Online and gaming addiction can have severe consequences. Prolonged usage can lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. It disrupts a child’s life both physically and mentally.”

Dr Tee references research indicating a significant association between increased social media use and symptoms of depressed mood, social anxiety, and physical symptoms of anxiety over time among adolescents, with stronger effects for girls. She adds, “I have also seen a connection between violent video games and aggressive behaviour in children. Games that involve seeking out enemies or completing aggressive quests can cause quick, violent reactions,” she adds.

A recent study also revealed that adolescents exposed to increased video game violence exhibited higher hostility levels, more frequent arguments with teachers, increased involvement in physical fights, and poorer school performance.

Explaining the Causes of Mental Health Issues among Young Adults:
Dr Tee elaborates on the underlying causes of mental health issues in young adults:

  • Cyberbullying: Social media platforms can become breeding grounds for cyberbullying, leading to anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
  • Fear of Missing Out (FOMO): Continuous exposure to seemingly exciting activities of others induces FOMO, causing isolation and anxiety.
  • Addiction and Compulsive Behaviour: The addictive nature of social media can lead to compulsive use and a constant need for validation, resulting in anxiety and depression when attention is not received.
  • Reduced Face-to-Face Interactions: Over-reliance on social media for communication may decrease real-life social interactions, leading to loneliness and social isolation.
  • Information Overload: Continuous exposure to distressing news, graphic content, or triggering posts on social media can increase stress levels and negatively affect mental well-being.

“Patients often experience stigma when seeking mental health treatment, further exacerbating their pain. I have seen cases where adolescents initially progressing with therapies and medications may have experienced relapses because they stopped treatment. While it is not a direct cause, it can be a potential problem for adolescents, especially those wanting to get help but are afraid of the stigma,” she added.

Multifaceted Approach to Child Mental Health
Dr Tee states, “A range of treatments and therapies must be tailored to the individual needs and factors like age, availability of supportive networks, existing coping skills, personality traits, and the acceptance of diagnosis or treatment by both the child and their parents.”

The range of treatments can include:

  • Counselling for venting stress
  • Cognitive-behavioural therapy to address erratic thinking linked to depressive and anxiety disorders
  • Grief therapy for emotional distress due to loss
  • Trauma work for those coping with childhood trauma or unhealthy escapism through internet addiction
  • Play therapy for young children to express their thoughts and feelings
  • Family therapy to address familial conflicts contributing to emotional distress
  • Medications such as antidepressants and antianxiety drugs for severe symptoms

The Benefits of Early Recognition
Dr Tee highlights the benefits of early recognition of addiction for child development, emphasising that timely identification and intervention reduce suicide risks and enhance coping mechanisms, particularly for those struggling with depression, anxiety, and loneliness during treatment. She also encourages parents to seek help from healthcare professionals.

“Parents must seek proper treatment and advice from healthcare professionals who understand the unique challenges of online and gaming addiction. Support groups can provide a vital lifeline for adolescents facing life’s challenges when they find solace in environments where adults and friends accept them without wanting to change them.”

“To be effective, specialised support groups by trained child psychologists with proper counselling techniques may be a beneficial addition to treatment for patients who may feel more comfortable among those also experiencing similar issues. Despite being one of the causes of mental health issues in adolescents, social media can also promote mental health awareness by educating the public about disorders and providing crisis support options,”

“Furthermore, it’s okay to use the internet, but it’s essential for adults to provide guidance. Let’s encourage its constructive side – a place where we can share helpful ideas, indulge in arts and crafts, pursue hobbies, and develop valuable skills,” she added.

As we commemorate World Mental Health Day, Dr Tee Bee Chin emphasises the importance of protecting our children’s mental health in the digital age. Recognising the signs, seeking early assistance, and nurturing a supportive environment are vital for our youth’s journey to becoming mentally resilient adults.

This article is contributed by Dr Tee Bee Chin, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Sunway Medical Centre, Sunway City, and does not represent the views or opinions of Health Matters Malaysia.

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