Taking a toll! Lack of regulation & awareness driving online addiction in Kerala

In 2023, over four suicides linked to online gaming were reported across the state | Addiction can be tackled with psychiatric intervention, say experts
Image used for representational purposes only
Image used for representational purposes only

KOCH: Akash was a hardworking youth who earned around Rs 1,200 a day working for a private company in Kozhikode. Yet, the 24-year-old developed an addiction for online rummy, which led him to take his own life.

On August 17, 2023, Akash was found hanging from a water pipeline in Manjappalam, Kozhikode. His uncle Shyju K says that Akash was not the same person after he started playing online rummy two years ago. “Akash was very bright and energetic. He worked as a driver transporting glass from Kozhikode to Thiruvananthapuram. He initially made some money from online gambling. But, within a year, he accumulated debt of over Rs 1.5 lakh. An accident interrupted his addiction – for a while. Meanwhile, his father took a loan to clear his debts. After making a recovery, he was back to being hooked to online gaming. To keep funding his activity, he started taking small amounts as loans from relatives and friends,” Shyju said.

On the day Akash’s body was found, around Rs 45,000 was debited from his bank account by a Mumbai-based firm, which the family claims runs an online gaming platform. No probe was conducted into the company.

Paying the price

Last year, over four suicides linked to online gaming were reported across Kerala. In August 2022, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan told the state assembly that between January 2019 and July 2022, nearly 25 children ended their lives over online addiction.

In February 2021, the state government amended the Kerala Gaming Act to ban online games, including rummy. But the Kerala High Court in September that year quashed the amendment terming rummy a game of skill, in line with the ruling of the Supreme Court.

Later, the government proposed legislation to put a stop to online games that siphon off money. But alas, that has not been followed up.

Jiyas Jamal, an expert in cyber law and founder of the Cyber Suraksha Foundation, said a major lobby runs online gaming that targets even young children. “Online games can be classified into two broad categories - those that are free and those that involve money. The games played with money can be further classified into skill-based and chance-based games. Chance-based games are barred. Despite the ban, they operate under different names. Even though the state government attempted to ban even skill-based online games, the High Court stayed the amendment brought in this regard,” Jiyas said.

Non-compliance with rules

However, according to him, the majority of skill-based online gaming companies that are operated from China are not registered in India. They do not comply with the country’s Information Technology (IT) Rules. Despite the numerous suicides reported in Kerala linked to online gaming, no companies running them have been booked for abetment.

“As per the IT Rules, online platforms operating in India should have an office in the country. They should also have nodal officers to attend to the grievances of users. However, most of the firms running online gaming in the country operate through agents, who deal with financial transactions. A person who loses money has no forum to lodge a complaint. In fact, these firms indulge in money laundering by re-routing unaccounted money from India to foreign countries. The saddest part is that no online gaming companies have been arraigned as accused in suicide cases reported here,” he said.

Jiyas alleged that there are fakes games that are propagated through advertisements on social media platforms and through influencers. There should be action against people who endorse such games. “Recently, I came across an advertisement for a bogus game on a social media platform. Although I reported it, the advertisement has not been removed. Online influencers are also major promoters of such games. The companies offer influencers money to endorse the games in their videos. The influencers are shown demo accounts that show users earning large amounts from playing their games. With governments refusing to take action, we have started flagging influencers who promote fake apps and games,” he said.

DDA programme

After the state government’s move to counter online gaming addiction was struck down by the HC, Kerala Police came up with its Digital De-Addiction (DDA) programme for children under 18. The initiative has proved to be effective. The programme was started in six districts – Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Ernakulam, Thrissur, Kozhikode and Kannur – on an experimental basis in January last year before being operationalised in November. Each DDA unit has a psychologist attending to cases related to online gaming and mobile phone addiction.

Sooraj Kumar M B, nodal officer of the Student Police Cadet (SPC) Project in Ernakulam who also co-ordinates the DDA operation in the district, said that the majority of students referred for the programme were involved in mobile gaming.

DDA also provides training to children on remedial measures in case they become the target of cyber fraud. “Since last November, we have attended to over 100 cases in Ernakulam. Most of the students are referred to by teachers due to online addiction. A good number were involved in online gaming. We provide them a self-assessment chart to diagnose whether they are addicted to mobile phones. After this, our psychologist gives them counselling. Our DDA has a 85% rehabilitation success rate,” he claimed.

Post-Covid phenomenon

According to Sooraj, digital addiction is largely a post-Covid phenomenon. For almost two years during the pandemic, children relied on mobile phones for all their activities and now taking the devices away from them is a daunting task. “It’s not just children, even many youth and adults cannot live without their mobile phones now. Addicted students turn aggressive when they are denied access to mobile phones. Such a response can lead to issues in the family,” he added.

Arun B Nair, professor of psychiatry at Thiruvananthapuram Government Medical College Hospital, says a deep craving for online gambling is a behavioural addiction. Online gaming and over-access to the digital world has affected the sleep cycles of children and adults alike. “Such games generate a dopamine surge to the brain that gives those playing them a thrill. The person thinks that he has attained enough skill to beat all obstacles and continues to gamble money even after incurring heavy losses,” he said.

Psychiatric help

Such addiction can be tackled with psychiatric intervention, says Arun. “Fixation for video games existed even before Covid. The situation, however, aggravated with the pandemic when children started getting access to mobile phones and other digital devices. Use of devices should be regulated based on the age of kids. Similarly, children should not be allowed to access mobile phones after 10pm to ensure they get a good night’s sleep,” he added.

Recent Victims

  • Feb 7, 2023: Girish, 35, of Kollengode, Palakkad, committed suicide by hanging himself in his house after he lost over 20 lakh playing online games

  • Aug 17: Akash, 24, of Paloli, Kozhikode, killed himself after suffering losses playing online rummy

  • Sept 13: A resident of Vellarikundu, Kasaragod, P K Rosh, 23, died by hanging himself at his workplace in Idukki after losing over Rs 80,000 playing an online game

  • Oct 17: Dileesh, 40, a barber from Rayamangalam, Ernakulam ended his life by consuming poison after suffering financial losses playing online rummy

Points to Ponder

  • 25 children killed themselves between Jan 2019 - Jan 2022 in state

  • The Kerala government banned online games in Feb 2021, but Kerala scrapped decision in Sept 2021

  • Kerala Police runs a Digital De-Addiction (DDA) programme for children in six districts

  • Most of the firms running online games are linked to China and operate in India without any office or nodal officer, as stated in IT Rules

  • Social media influencers endorse games and lure youngsters promising high returns

  • Gambling games generate a dopamine surge to the brain that gives those playing them a thrill

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