The 15-year-old adolescent from the northern province of Hai Duong said he started playing video games daily when he was in grade 6. When his mother gave him her old iPhone 7 when he was in grade 7, he was introduced to even more games.
The more time he spent gaming, the more addicted he became.
When he reached grade 8, he found himself not only playing in his free time, but also skipping his homework to play instead. His academic performance suffered, his personal hygiene fell by the wayside, and he lost all motivation to interact with other people.
“There was a period of time when I got by on only bread and milk. My parents had to come to my room to force me to eat, which I fought against,” Hung recalled.
Hung’s parents took his phone away many times, talked to him, and even punished him physically. His mother stayed up all night worried. She explain to her son how video games made him skinny, physically weak, moody and reclusive.
“I felt guilty, but immediately moved on,” Hung said.
He lived like that for over two years. The addiction made him physically ill and he couldn’t stop losing weight. After he completed his school’s first term, his father notified him that he would be taken to the IVS Boarding School, colloquially known as a “video games detox center.”
Hung, 15, a Hai Duong resident, has been enrolled in the IVS Boarding School in Hanoi for over three months. The healthy lifestyle he’s been leading here helped him gain weight and reach 45 kg. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Duong
‘My body didn’t work’
Tung, 17, was unstable when he first brought to IVS.
“I hadn’t gone to school, I hadn’t played video games, and I hadn’t spoken to another human being for a whole week before coming here,” he said. “My body didn’t work except for when I ate or went to the toilets.”
Tung used to be the monitor of his class. Every time his school held an event, he was the student chosen to give a speech. In his middle school years, he managed to balance playing video games, studying and doing house choirs.
“However, after entering high school, I felt like I got addicted. I played whenever I had spare time,” he said.
He eventually cut down on his studying and house choirs doing and spent all his time on video games instead. His parents first only warned him about his behavior, and then they took his computer and phone away when things got worse. But they couldn’t do much else as they were busy working.
But what Tung’s parents weren’t aware of was that he had begun to make a living off his addiction.
After he attended the city’s eSports championship and won three golden prizes and one silver prize, he began making money playing video games. As his reputation grew, people hired him to play on their accounts as well.
Normally he earned VND15,000 per 15 minutes of play, but during “peak” periods such as midterms or final exams, he could earn as much as VND180,000 for 15 minutes playing. He also ran a livestream channel with three friends and acquired around 40,000 subscribers.
“I bought three laptops and two iPhones with the money I earned providing gaming services,” Tung said.
Tung skipped his afternoon classes to make time for his new job. He didn’t take notes or study, but he never got caught because his teachers thought of him as an upright student. Every night, after his parents went to bed, he locked his door and played video games until 2-3a.m. On weekends, he stayed up all nights to play.
Tung thought about quitting many times. He started forcing himself to take notes in class again, and he began doing his homework in the evenings and going to bed early at night. However, after a few days “sober” like this, he’d return to his addiction. After every “relapse,” his addiction grew worse and deeper.
His secret finally escaped after his recent midterm exam. He fell from the top of his class to the bottom, scoring only four to five [out of ten] on his exams. “I didn’t know what to say when my teachers asked me to explain,” Tung said.
Tung’s teachers warned him that they would take his class monitor position away. His mother was upset. “My dad said he hadn’t wanted me to win prizes, all he asked me to do was to gain knowledge, which I wasn’t even capable of anymore. I saw disappointment on his face,” Tung said.
He felt ashamed. He promised himself that he would study hard again and avoid video games. “But then I realized that I’d fallen so far behind that I couldn’t catch up with my classes anymore,” he said.
Tung, 17, a Nam Dinh resident, took up playing sports and musical instruments after enrolling at the IVS Boarding School. At the same time, he’s been trying to catch up on all the schoolwork he missed due to his video game addiction. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Duong
Hope on the horizon
Hung and Tung are two of thousands of adolescents attending the IVS Boarding School, which was established in 2009. There are 450 students enrolled at the school’s Thanh Oai campus, 300 students at the Bac Ninh campus, and 700 students at two campuses in Southern Vietnam.
According to Oanh, teenagers are the group most vulnerable to video games because they haven’t yet fully learned to control their behavior and they’re generally curious enough to try and explore almost anything. And game creators know this.
Video games are designed in visually-appealing and attractive ways – they are specifically built to hook young players as easily as possible. Oanh said teenagers are especially interested in roleplay games, as the genre compensates for other things that they’re dissatisfied with in real life.
“Video games addicts and unruly students are not hopeless. They are addicted and unruly mainly because they haven’t found a suitable educational environment,” Oanh said.
Oanh believed that exploring why a teenager is addicted to video games is the most important step in their rehabilitation. After that, a clinical protocol should be planned and carried out.
This protocol shouldn’t rely on medicine, according to Oanh. Instead, it should revolve around helping the teenager manage their emotions. For example, children are required to participate in sports and arts activities at IVS, where they are also taught to live with strict discipline.
“First, we break their current habits. After that, we help them to take up new habits and new behavior,” Oanh said.
Oanh suggested that parents modify their phone usage habits and accompany their children, try to understand their children’s emotions. “Of the 15% of our students who relapse and re-enroll in our school, most lack companionship from their families,” Oanh added.
Students attend a Vovinam class at IVS Boarding School in February, 2023. Photo courtesy of IVS Boarding School
‘I promised myself’
Having taught at the school for six years, Nguyen Quyet Thang has met many video games addicts. In September 2021, a 7th grade student was brought to the school in an almost “autistic” condition. He was reluctant to communicate with others and lacked survival skills.
He even had to be assisted in basic daily activities like eating or cleaning himself. His mother said she didn’t even dare come home sometimes, as she was afraid that he would get mad and fight with her.
Thang also met another 8th grade student from Thai Nguyen who weighed only 23.5 kg when he showed up at the school. He didn’t eat when his parents brought food to him. Another case Thang still remembers is one who suffered from hallucinations and fought with his teachers and classmates as he thought he was a video game character.
Hung was similar to such cases when he first came to the school. He fought with his friends, didn’t obey his teachers and thought bad about his parents. “I craved games and often thought about running away from the school,” he said.
Guitar and sports activities ended up being the most helpful to Hung’s overcoming his negative thoughts, which had often been the precursors to his gaming. After the first two weeks, Hung’s cravings started weakening. One month after enrolling at the school, Hung got a heartfelt and emotional letter from his older sister that made him cry.
Three days later, Hung responded by updating her on his improving condition. He celebrated the Lunar New Year (Tet) away from home, but he wasn’t lonely as the school offered a host of groups activities.
Tung struggled for a while when he first came to the school as well. During his first ten days, he hallucinated that he too was a game character.
“[Before video games] I had a passion for sports and music, but I dropped those hobbies because I didn’t have time [during my game addiction]. However, after coming here, I had the chance to take up my hobbies again,” Tung said.
He is trying to self-teach himself certain subjects up to an 11th-grade level. He enjoys reading as well. He bought enough books after enrolling in the school for six months to fill a treasure chest. He’s now planning to finish his 11th grade at the boarding school before returning to a school near home and attend the national university entrance exam.
“Video games made me lose the trust of my parents and teachers,” Tung said. “But now I’ve promised myself that I’ll quit.”
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