Hong Kong kids are not happy. This distressing conclusion was a by-product of a survey conducted by the Hong Kong College of Technology Institute of Higher Education and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, aimed at discovering the extent of gaming disorder.

led game controller on table
Photo by suludan diliyaer on Pexels.com

Gaming disorder is apparently an unreasonable obsession with computer games. The researchers interviewed 2,770 primary or secondary students and diagnosed the disorder in 12.6 per cent of them.

This is interesting but provokes a certain sense of deja vu. Citizens of my age can remember periods of concern about teenage addictions to, at various times: American comics, violent videos, motor scooters, Walkmans (Walkmen?), video games of the old stand-up-in-an-arcade variety, Tamagotchis, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, mobile phones, Pokemon cards, vaping, drinking, and the deplorable examples set by various role models from Mick Jagger to Justin Bieber.

We must of course remember that in the old story of the boy who cried “wolf” there was eventually a real wolf. So I remain agnostic on gaming disorder. Still, other figures picked up by the way seemed more disturbing.

The researchers found that 49 per cent of interviewees diagnosed themselves as having moderate or severe depression, 53.3 per cent had moderate or severe anxiety, and 62.8 per cent had moderate or severe stress.

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A foggy skyline. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Even if you accept, which I doubt, that the 12.6 per cent with gaming disorder had as a result also suffered from depression, anxiety and stress, that still leaves a very large slab of the juvenile population suffering from one or more of these problems, from other causes.

Sceptics will no doubt argue that self-diagnosis is not very satisfactory. Subtle differences in the way the question is put can have a disproportionate influence on the results. Researchers whose main focus is on the effects of some other variable – in this case games – may choose to tolerate a lot of unreliable responses to tease out a publishable and interesting result.

If you wanted to be rude you could complain that the threshold for reporting a disorder in this piece of work was so low as to make the results meaningless. If we all have mental problems perhaps this is an unavoidable part of the human condition.

I am not comforted. The fact that the total number of people reporting one or more mental health issue totalled 165 per cent suggests that the researchers had stumbled across a great deal of unhappiness. There must surely have been some respondents who reported no such problems. This suggests that there were a great many – possibly a majority – reporting two or more.

On a pessimistic view this could be considered unsurprising. Many respectable scientists now fear that the planet will have become uninhabitable before today’s students reach their fruit money.

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File photo: Lea Mok/HKFP

Closer to home it may well be that a lot of young Hongkongers do not subscribe to the official view of recent history. Maybe they do not feel they were rescued from “black violence” by the arrival of the national security law. On the contrary, perhaps they see promises broken, ideals and dreams trampled, their leaders and inspirers jailed or exiled.

Anyone who is not stressed, anxious or depressed has not been paying attention, they will think.

It is perhaps a pity that the researchers did not extend their view to inquiring why so many students wanted to play computer games for an extended time. Is there an attraction besides the artistically laid cybertraps which keep people coming back for more?

Inside your computer is a world whose rules you understand, which behaves in a predictable way and responds to your controls. With care and attention you can be a winner.

Outside your computer is a world which has no time for you, which presents you with an educational obstacle course on which everyone will sooner or later “fail” except the lucky few who wind up studying medicine at Harvard or Oxford, you have no control over events and merely singing about freedom and democracy will get you flung out of your school.

This may seem a counter-intuitive solution to the problem of gaming addiction but could the best answer be to make the real world more attractive?

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Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.