Young people are spending so much time playing games on their mobile phones that they are endangering their physical and mental health and risk becoming targets for online predators, experts have warned.
Some children are becoming so addicted that they are not developing proper social skills and are even afraid of talking to people in their daily lives.
Playing mobile phone games can have the same addictive qualities as getting hooked on cigarettes, a UAE professor said.
A recent survey by AdColony Mena, revealed that 90 per cent of all mobile phone owners in the UAE are using their devices to play games on, but leading experts in the sector have warned about the perils this presents to young people.
Mobile phones have become a hugely lucrative market for the gaming industry, but there are issues for parents who will find it even more difficult to monitor their children’s activity on a phone than on a games console like an Xbox or Playstation, especially as many of the games are free to download.
Barry Lee Cummings, chief awareness officer with UAE based website Beat The Cyber Bully, said: “Because these games use multi-national servers it means children can be contacted by people they don’t know, sometimes this can be a predator who grooms them and then attempts to take the relationship into the offline world.
“The thought process is that ‘it won’t happen here’, but it does. We have actually worked with schools who have warned pupils to be alert about suspicious cars being parked outside its gates.”
Children, who spend unsupervised time playing games on their phone, are even more at risk of being exposed to adult language and, in some cases, explicit websites.
“It actually effects their relationship with the opposite sex. Instead of having healthy, normal relationships with the opposite sex a lot of young boys are choosing to look at adult websites instead,” said Mr Cummings.
The UAE’s recent decision to ban the use of Skype has went some way to helping prevent predators to gain access to children here.
“There has been a massive increase in the use of VPNs because people cannot use Skype here. This actually means that a lot of VPNs cannot cope with the extra traffic,” he said.
“It means that fewer online predators are chatting to children pretending they are in the USA or somewhere else, when actually they are right here and trying to befriend the child to groom them.”
Justin Thomas, associate professor at Zayed University, agreed that spending too long playing games on their mobiles can have damaging repercussions. He said the problems are similar to spending too long on a games console, but with mobile gaming the dangers are compounded because of how easy phones are to access.
“The phone has the addictive quality of always being there – the phone is to the addicted gamer as the hip-flask is to an alcoholic,” he said.
“If the Xbox is shisha then the phone is cigarettes.”
Mr Cummings warned that parents have to be fully alert to what can happen if children spend too long playing games on their mobile phones.
“By spending so much time on their phones they are not developing the skills to speak to other people and then develop fear of people they are not spending time with at school,” he said.
It is not just mental health issues that have to be monitored though, there are also physical concerns for people playing long gaming sessions on their mobile phones, as Mr Thomas explained.
“Excessive use of a phone has negative implications of skeletomuscular health,” he said.
“Phones are not ergonomically designed for long gaming sessions. Prolonged use can also lead to repetitive strain injury.”
Mr Cummings said that parents have a real challenge to be able to ensure their children are not playing their phones late at night.
“You should try and make sure they do not take their phones to bed where possible but I understand a lot of people use them as alarm clocks,” he said.
“If they are on their phones late at night it can affect their performance at school the next day, which can have far-reaching implications for exams and their future. Thankfully there is software available that you can put on their phones to restrict what they use at certain times.”
A recent survey, by AdColony MENA, revealed that 90 per cent of mobile phone owners are playing 20 to 40 minutes a day.
Samantha Billingham, regional sales director at AdColony EMEA, spoke about the rise of mobile gaming in the region.
“The gaming industry is no longer a niche arena for a certain age group or consumer segment. With the advent of mobile gaming and improvements to hardware used in playing these games, gaming has become a viable form of entertainment for players from all backgrounds and ages,” she said.
“Almost 90 per cent of the smartphone owners in United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are playing mobile games.”