NEW DELHI - "Demon in every house" may seem a far-fetched indictment for a mobile game.
But then "Player Unknown's Battlegrounds" is not just any other game. The wildly popular online game, better known as PUBG Mobile, has provoked strong reactions in India as its hold on youngsters becomes increasingly obvious along with the heavy toll it has apparently extracted on their lives.
Earlier this month, Goa's minister for IT Rohan Khaunte called for a law to keep a check on the game. Students, he said, were neglecting their academic responsibilities because of it. This came after Gujarat's primary education department in January banned the game in schools in the state. Police in the state capital have even set up a helpline for parents worried about their children's addiction to the game.
Kids, too, are speaking up against it. Last month, Ahad Nizam, an 11-year-old boy, petitioned the Bombay High Court to ban PUBG Mobile, claiming it promotes "violence, murder, aggression, looting, gaming addiction and cyber bullying".
Two recent cases possibly linked to the game lend credence to Ahad's claim.
In October last year, a 19-year-old boy was arrested in Delhi for allegedly killing his parents and sister - he had stabbed them - to seek revenge for the "humiliation" he suffered at their hands. The police claimed he was addicted to PUBG and had rented a room to play the game with his friends, often for more than 10 hours a day.
The game may also have even been a cause for the death of an 18-year-old boy in Mumbai this month. He reportedly committed suicide after an argument with his family over buying a new phone to play the game.
Launched in March 2018 by Chinese publisher Tencent Games, PUBG Mobile is a game in which players are parachuted onto an island. They then need to scout for weapons and equipment to kill others while avoiding getting killed themselves. SimilarWeb, an Internet analytics firm, ranks PUBG Mobile as the top grossing app for India on Google Play Store.
The Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights this month termed games like PUBG Mobile "negative", adding that they have an adverse impact on children. The campaign against it also highlights India's growing problem of technology addiction which has been described as the country's "newest lifestyle disease".
A study conducted in 2015 in Wardha in Maharashtra, covering 846 students aged between 17 and 24 found that Internet addiction was prevalent among 19.85 per cent in the group. Another survey conducted in 2017 on 300 college students in Hassan in Karnataka recorded that 98 of them displayed mild addiction and another 72 had moderate addiction for the Internet. Three of the total sample were severely addicted.
Even though there is a lack of national datasets to confirm a rise in addiction, the trend is reflected through cases at the Behavioural Addiction Clinic at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, as well as other similar clinics across the country. The one in Delhi, which opened in 2016, receives around 10 individuals every month who check in for internet and technology addiction, up from one to two cases per month in the first year.
"The prevalence rate of this problem is surely rising in India just like elsewhere in the world. With mobile phones becoming more accessible, the possibility of children getting addicted has grown," Dr Rachna Bhargava, associate professor in clinical psychology at the institute, told The Straits Times. "The use of Internet or games reduces anxiety and improves mood, the way other intoxicants like alcohol do. And when children are stopped from using mobile phones, they get irritable and angry."
A similar clinic is expected to open next month at the King George Medical University in Lucknow. Pollution and lack of open spaces where children can play have also made the use of video games more widespread among children in many Indian cities. Cheap data, too, has made online gaming widely affordable. The clinic in New Delhi has seen a pattern in children who have cravings to the extent they refuse to go out or interact with others even if it is essential.
"Just as with alcohol, the tolerance level keeps on increasing for technology and games. It is not only a question of how time is spent but also an anticipation for a surprise or a reward," she says.
Parents are often late in recognising early symptoms and seek professional recourse only when addiction has set in deep, causing overt changes in behaviour and a decline in academic performance in the child.
Dr Bhargava argues that it is the primary responsibility of parents to engage and monitor their children.
"Parents may be working but they need to find alternate activities for their children that can draw them away from this kind of addiction. Changing the life pattern of the whole family is something that is helpful for both prevention as well as treatment," she adds.