China crushes the supply of online gaming ‘opium’ while Australia hands it out in schools

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China has just cut access to online gaming to a maximum of three hours a week. As far as the Chinese government is concerned, games are highly addictive ‘spiritual opium’ with devastating consequences for the mental health of an entire generation. Meanwhile Australian schools and universities are opening the equivalent of injecting rooms in their classrooms.

There is no doubt that gaming is addictive. The dopamine spikes created by the simulated danger in online games, cause addiction. Those dopamine ‘hits’ are just as addictive as the ones generated by chemical stimulants like opioids. And the consequences of that addiction are no less dire, with anxiety, depression, self-harm and even suicide featuring prominently on a very long list. The science is so clear that in mid 2018 the World Health Organisation (WHO) added gaming addiction to the list of diagnosable mental health conditions.

Shortly after the WHO declaration the China Internet Network Information Centre (CINIC) said more than 30 per cent of Chinese children were suffering from the disorder. Within a year the Chinese government implemented severe restrictions on gaming. Children were only permitted 90 minutes of gaming per day plus three hours on holidays.  It didn’t work. The CINIC now estimates that gaming addiction among children in China is rampant, with around 60% of children affected.

The latest move tightens the screws further. Now under 18s in China cannot play online games at all from Monday to Thursday and are allowed to play only between 8pm and 9pm on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and public holidays. Another new requirement is that every player has to be registered with a real name and the games must provide links to online anti-addiction services. Face recognition software is also being deployed into games to ensure compliance.

Data from CINIC showed China’s gaming industry produced revenue of US$43 billion in 2020, up 21 percent from the previous year.  An article published by the Chinese state owned newsagency said “No industry, no sport, can be allowed to develop in a way that will destroy a generation.” According to Tong Lihua, director of the Beijing Children’s Legal Aid and Research Center, the latest move is a response to the unchecked profit-seeking nature of a gaming industry that depends on the addiction of children.

China knows a thing or two about being the victim of addiction profiteering. In the late 18th century, the British East India Company solved a wee cash flow problem by shipping tonnes of Indian grown opium into southern China, where the habit of consuming it was taken up with gusto. By 1836, up to twelve million Chinese were opium addicts. When the Chinese government banned its use and destroyed the stockpiles of British merchants in 1839, the British Navy used their overwhelming military might to force the Chinese to become good customers of the British opium trade once again.

It wasn’t until Mao brutally eliminated the trade in the 1950s that China got its opium addiction under control. He knew that the primary cost of addiction was time. Time spent feeding the addiction was time not spent producing. It was a productivity cost that post-war China could not afford. Mao put ten million addicts in compulsory treatment, executed the dealers and ploughed over opium farms.

Today in Australia, we are now ploughing the over the ‘spiritual opium’ farms that are online gaming. We are fertilizing them.  Our high schools and universities are signing up to eSports leagues. To participate, a school establishes “teams” of competitive gamers who “train” for hours each week after school and compete in the online leagues. The players pay a nominal fee to be part of the season, just like a real sport but about a third of the cost.

The games are free to play and can be played all the time regardless of being in a “team”, so I suspect most of the players get in a lot more “training” than the hour or two they do at school. And probably use the need to “train” as an excuse for access to their devices at home.

The schools do it because it seems like sport, but is much cheaper to run, keeps the kids busy and there are great prizes for the schools and the students on offer. But they might as well be opening lunchtime pubs in their canteens. Addicting their students to gaming is no better than addicting them to booze and it certainly isn’t sport.

According to Roy Morgan data from December 2020, 5.5 million Aussies played video games in the past three months. And if there is one thing gamers like doing almost as much as playing, it’s watching people who are better than them play.  The audiences for eSports eclipse the audiences for real sports by extraordinary margins.  And where there is an eager audience, there’s money to be made.

PwC’s latest Australian Entertainment and Media Outlook says that total interactive gaming and esports revenues rose by 7.2% in 2020 to $3.41 billion in Australia, a number expected to grow by at least a quarter of a billion dollars a year through to 2025.  This is why, AFL clubs, with a capped local audience for their core game and desperate desire for growth, have driven the adoption of eSports in schools in the last five years.

There is a lot of money to be made from getting and keeping Australian kids addicted to gaming.  And the best bit, from the industry’s point of view is the collateral damage, the mental health tidal wave that follows the wave of addiction, is not their problem. New gamers are born every minute and schools are willing accomplices in feeding the production line.

These games are the very best, the most addictive, the most evolved, the gaming industry has to offer. Their purpose is to addict young minds, so that billions can be drained from their bank accounts and billions more can be drained from the accounts of sponsors who want access to the players and their fans. And our schools have signed up as part of the gaming industry sales force.

We don’t tolerate commercialisation of our schools. There are no Macca’s school canteens. There are no school footy teams with brewery sponsors.  So why on earth are we allowing companies whose entire purpose is to addict young minds open up shop in our schools?

eSport is addictive gaming, pure and simple, so don’t let your school fall for the marketing BS designed to turn your kids into a product for sale to the highest bidder.

China is not quite at the point of executing dealers and putting millions of kids into rehab centres, but their recent experience with mass addiction has meant they are quick to recognise the signs of a productivity and mental health catastrophe.  We would be wise not to ignore what they are doing and at the very least stop our schools and universities fanning the flames of the next profit driven addiction pandemic.

 

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How simple things done well can help reset our brain

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Dopamine is our go-juice. It motivates us to chase reward and to run from danger. Without it, we might notice the bar of chocolate but would be unable to muster the energy to pick it up.  We might see the car running the red light but lack the will to move out of the way.

Luckily, we come fitted out with a perfectly operational dopamine system. Arranging motivation for chasing rewarding things like food or sex or running from danger is not a problem.  If, however, we overstimulate dopamine we can change the way our brain is wired.  If we obtain rewards or encounter stressful situations too frequently our brain adapts by making us less sensitive to both risk and reward. This makes us simultaneously seek bigger rewards – something we call addiction – and overestimate risk – something we call anxiety.

We can overstimulate dopamine using chemicals, like cocaine, alcohol, nicotine, and sugar. Or we can do it using software like porn, social media and dating apps, that run high frequency simulations of rewarding experiences.

Chronic stress such as financial, job, or housing insecurity or health pandemics and lockdowns will achieve the same result.  And we can get there using software that simulates stress, like gambling and games.

Once our brain is rewired by reward or stress, we are at very high risk of developing serious addictions and mental illness, not to mention lacking impulse control and being more prone to violence.  Fortunately, there is a way to reset our brains.

Breaking an Addiction

Obviously the first step is to remove whatever it is that is overstimulating dopamine. For rewarding behaviours and substances, it means admitting we have a problem and consciously stopping. That is not easy. If it were they would not be addictive.

The research tells us that most of us will struggle to get past this hurdle the first time we try. But there is nothing to be lost in stopping again, and again, and again if necessary.  Failing to quit is not a character defect, it is biochemistry and every time we abstain for even a short time, we are making the mountain a little bit easier to climb the next time.

Something that the science says will significantly improve our odds of success is finding other people who are also quitting and meeting them weekly to talk about how we are going. It keeps us and them honest and motivated.  Every day away from addiction makes it much more likely we will break it.

Removing Stress

If the source of the overstimulation is stress, then we must work to reduce stress.  For some sources that is achieved introducing routine.  The less decisions we must make the less uncertainty we encounter and the less we engage the mechanism that creates decision anxiety.

There are many uncertain parts of our life over which we have no control.  We cannot control whether the government puts us in to a lockdown that endangers our job.  We cannot control whether our landlord will delay collection of the rent. But we can control smaller things. If for example you always know what you will have for dinner on Monday night, you have removed whole chains of decisions – when to shop, how to shop, how to pay for it and how to cook – from your life. It is by definition, boring. But routine and boredom is what we are aiming for when we seek to remove uncertainty from our lives.

Using a Dopamine patch

We know that for some people it is easier to break an addiction if something which delivers a lower dopamine hit is administered and then the dose lowered slowly over time.  This is the theory behind nicotine patches.  Deliver the nicotine/dopamine hit without the cigarette and lower the dose over time. That notion of low dose dopamine hits will help to rewire the brain’s addictive and stressed state.

The body sometimes attempts this sort of self-help solution on its own. Pain, hunger and lack of sleep all produce dopamine hits. We see those in real-life, in the form of self-harm, intentional starvation and insomnia. The body will apply those band-aids itself if we don’t get in front of the problem.

We can do this in many other ways which don’t need drugs, pain or exhaustion. We know that anything that requires us to focus delivers a dopamine hit.  So taking up a hobby, or a sport or learning to play an instrument or even meditating will all work as long as you can remain focused and live in the moment while you are doing it.

The key is focus.  To focus, our brain needs to increase dopamine levels. This becomes a ‘nicotine patch’ for bringing us down from the endless chase for hits from addictive behaviours or substance while simultaneously making those same hits from stress and uncertainty more tolerable. Haven’t you always wanted to learn the piano?

 

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Why COVID is turning us all into addicts

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Pre-covid, one in ten UK adults reported current symptoms of anxiety or depression.  The number was similar in Australia and the US.  By June 2020, the UK number had risen to one in five.  By Christmas in the US 42% of all US adults were reporting the symptoms.  There is no reason to believe Australia’s numbers will be any different when they are eventually published. The stress of covid and the lockdowns associated with it are driving mental illness to levels we have never measured or experienced before.

We also are starting to see similar increases in addiction and violent crime.  A third of households now report drinking daily to cope with anxiety and one in five report buying more alcohol than usual. The number of Australians gambling four or more times a week increased by 40% during 2020.  And according to crime data, assaults increased by 30% and domestic violence increased by 45%.

All of this is united by a single simple explanation that is based on the way our brain adapts to stress. The bad news is that this stress adaptation creates a self-perpetuating cycle that leads inevitably to addiction and mental illness. The good news is that we know this – and can stop it if we act quickly.

I live under a flight path.  Visitors often remark about aircraft noise which I stopped noticing long ago. They live in quiet streets where a jet flying over at a thousand feet would stand out like canine gonads. But I have ‘backgrounded’ it because it happens to me every 10 minutes. That ability to not notice things which are part of our normal environment is an important survival mechanic. We need to be able to do that so that when something unusual happens we do notice it amongst the noise.

We don’t just do this for sounds.  We do it for smell, colour, temperature, and pain to name just a few others. Critically we also do it for danger. If we live in a war zone, a stressful event like nearby gunfire will bother us a lot less than if we live in (say) Adelaide.  In the war zone we would be adapted to the background of frequent gunfire so that we would react only to the noises which put us in real, imminent danger.

This response helps us cope with the ever-present risk so we can still function.  If we responded to constant risk the way we respond to a once in a lifetime mortal threat, we’d be permanently frozen in fear.  Our biochemistry changes the calculation of risk so we can keep moving forward even in the most hair-raising circumstances.

We do the same thing for rewarding behaviour.  If rewards are rare, we keep a close eye out for them, but if we have unlimited access to reward, we get bored.  We need more and more stimulation to manage the same level of desire.  We create a new baseline for ‘normal’ levels of pleasure. Our brains background the good stuff just as efficiently as they do for the bad stuff.  This is not particularly surprising because we use the same biochemistry for both.

The trap is of course that since both pleasure and pain trigger the same biochemical adaptation, they act as gateways to each other.  People experiencing high levels of danger seek extraordinary levels of pleasure.  And people experiencing high levels of pleasure accept significantly greater levels of danger.

But there is a bigger price to pay than merely seeking pleasure and danger. Because our brains have moved the goalposts on what is normal, we will overestimate the potential reward on offer – we call this addiction – and do the same for potential risk – we call this anxiety.

This is why, in times of chronic disease uncertainty, chronic housing insecurity and chronic job insecurity, we are seeing rates of addiction and mental illness skyrocket.

Worse, the adaptation to stress puts our brain in a state of impaired impulse control.  We are more irritable, less able to make rational decisions and generally angrier and more impulsive. We might feel like punching the driver that just cut us off at the best of times, but when we are in this state we are much more likely to act on it. There is little wonder then that is exactly what we are seeing play out because of the stress associated with COVID and the government responses to it.

All hope is not lost, however. We can reset the brain wiring that holds us in a state of anxiety, addiction, and dangerous lack of self-control.   It is not easy, but it is possible to reset our tolerance levels for danger and reward and return us to non-addicted, non-anxious equilibrium.  Exactly how that is done is the subject of part two of this series.

 

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