by Nguyen Thu Hien
It is an early summer morning. It is so quiet that only the singing of insects and birds can be heard at Ha Noi's Sung Phuc Pagoda.
|Online gaming addict Nguyen Thanh Thai cleans the yard at Ha Noi's Sung Phuc Pagoda. This is part of the daily routine of monks in the pagoda where he has spent nearly two months trying to give up his addiction. Many online gaming addicts spend their weekends in the pagoda to meditate and listen to stories about life values. — VNS Photo Thu Hien
Bong . . . bong . . . bong! The ancient copper bell sounds its first summons of the day. A few minutes later, monks in their grey robes start filing into the sanctuary for chanting and meditation.
Among them are 11-year-old student Nguyen Thanh Thai and four other boys. Thai, who is wearing a robe far too big for him, is not a novice, but he takes up the meditation posture along with the others, legs crossed, hands on knees, head and back upright. His eyes gaze slightly downwards.
Sometimes, Thai gently stretches his legs and rubs his feet, his high forehead slightly furrowed. He must feel weary.
Thai, whose home is in northern Dien Bien Province, nearly 500km away, says: "I am not a Buddhist follower, but an online game addict. My parents let me spend my three-month summer in the pagoda in the hope I will overcome my addiction."
Being an addict meant being glued for many hours of the day and night, his sleepless eyes fixated on the laptop screen for hours on end. He missed many classes and forget about outdoor activities. Around him was always a litter of fast food containers from the junk food he ate while playing games.
He says: "I actually didn't switch off my laptop even at night because I was scared that my virtual characters would be killed by other online players. I got headaches, but in my mind there was always an irresistible urge to be on the internet for interesting games."
Dr Hanh Vuong, a child and adolescent psychiatrist based in Sydney, says Thai was in the early stages of problematic internet use. During this period, the subject begins to spend more and more time online, loses track of time, and is constantly thinking about getting online when away from the terminal.
There may be an edginess when off-line, which is relieved by logging on. And with the huge popularity of online games and social networking sites, there may be a constant craving for updates. Then, as extreme addiction takes hold, the player becomes totally immersed in the virtual world, staying online for days at a time.
Pham Tung Lam, chairman of the Education Psychology Association, agrees with Hanh. He says like other kinds of addiction, online games replace the role of parents, relatives and friends in young addicts' emotional lives. So, if they are separated from these games, they become anxious. Those who are hooked also suffer sleep disorders, hand and finger injuries, sore backbones, sore-eyes and headaches.
Lam says children easily become obsessed with the often very violent behaviour of characters in the games. Many unconsciously imitate these actions. "Online game addiction can push them to become thieves who even dare to kill people to get money."
In March this year alone, five online game addicts aged between 14 and 17 years old attacked people and stole their assets. Three people were killed in the attacks.
While there are no official statistics of online game addicts, the General Statistics Office reported in March that the number of Internet users in Viet Nam had reached 32.1 million. And a Yahoo & Kantar Media Net Index survey in 2011 showed 57 per cent of respondents played online games.
Lam says online game addiction often begins when children are left alone in their own homes because their parents are too busy with their work, are divorced or use violence to punish them.
Thai says his parents are doctors in a hospital in Dien Bien Province and also operate their own clinic. "They leave home before I get up and come home after I go to bed. They are even away from home at night because they are on duty or in their clinic. They thought I was old enough to take care of myself with the assistance of two domestic workers. but, without any control, I turned all my interest to online games."
Thai's parents did not realise his situation was critical until he kept asking for games even when he caught a fever. But they failed to find an effective treatment for the boy.
The solution came in the most unexpected way two months ago. Thai's parents met monk Pho Trang from Sung Phuc Pagoda. He told them that in an endeavour to give up their bad habits, hundreds of children, many online game addicts, were spending their weekends in the pagoda to meditate, recite Buddhist scriptures, listen to stories about life values or play in groups.
Thai was taken to the pagoda where he has been staying for nearly two months with four other boys. Pho Trang says Thai, in the first few days, looked empty-headed with glassy eyes, and said nothing.
He tried to escape from the pagoda at nights, when monks took turns to stand watch and spoke with him. His mood lightened up day by day.
Thai says Buddhist stories about bad and good people interested him. "I don't know when I started to love staying with them."
He has now taken up the routines of monks in the pagoda, with 20 minutes of meditation in the early morning. "At the beginning, I couldn't stand sitting quietly for such a long time. I cried sometimes when my body was weary and I felt really uneasy without online games. Several weeks later, I gradually forgot the feeling of hunger for games. My mind becomes free."
After meditation, Thai joins the monks in the pagoda's garden to plant and water trees. I watch as he stoops beside a lemon tree, his chubby fingers used to dance on a computer keyboard clumsily wielding a pair of scissors to trim rotten leaves and fruit, trying hard to avoid touching the tiny flowers.
An afternoon in the pagoda for Thai means a three-hour lecture on basic Buddhist philosophy, the do's and don'ts, happy things, habits or mistakes. In the evening, Thai spends his time reading books in the pagoda's library, a habit he forgot for a long time after online games took control of his life.
During the weekend, he has a chance to learn new songs and outdoor games with other hundreds of children. The monk Pho Trang says Thai's thoughts have changed after what he learned in the pagoda. "His behaviour has accordingly changed, so he has managed to escape his online obsession."
Besides, he needs love, care and encouragement from adults to give up his addiction, says he.
Thai is now brown and slim, but healthier. His eyes are bright and flashing. And at the end of this month, he will go home. He is confident the change is permanent. "I now love reading books and participating in outdoor activities. If I have any craving to play games, I will meditate and recall the great stories I heard from the monk." — VNS