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The onset of 5G in India and possible repercussions on child gamers: Issues and Solutions


Gaming and Safety
 

What’s so promising about 5G?


The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has confirmed that fifth generation (5G) telecom network and technology services will be launched in India later this year, with the much anticipated spectrum auctions to kickstart towards the end of this month. 5G services are expected to be made available in 20-25 cities and towns by the end of the year. As a result, quite a few manufacturers have already launched smartphones that support 5G technology.


So what’s all the buzz with 5G about? This year marks a historic occasion in India’s digital transformation journey as, for the first time ever, India will reserve a part of its telecom spectrum for private 5G networks that can be run by various enterprises, including tech giants. Private 5G networks are likely to be similar to the public 5G (which telecom companies will bid for), with the exception that it is expected to be cheaper and its connectivity will be limited to the space of the enterprise. Needless to say, while telecom companies represented by their apex body Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) have opposed this move (stating that allowing independent entities to set up private captive networks with direct 5G spectrum allotment would severely impact revenues and degrade 5G’s business case for telecom operators), the enterprises would find themselves at an advantage.


What does the advent of 5G signify for end users like you and me? 5G will help address the issue of low fixed broadband penetration in India and improve consumers’ data experience on the go. The most significant promise with 5G is that of extremely fast internet speeds, as much as 600 Mbps, according to Ookla. Currently on 4G, the top average download speed (offered by Reliance Jio) is 29 Mbps. Other benefits of 5G include lower latency (latency is the time taken for data to be transferred between its original source and destination and is measured in milliseconds), higher capacity of connected devices, less interference and improved efficiency. On the questions of difference in prices for the end user though, there is conflicting information available but per an Ericsson study, 5G will result in a cost per gigabyte that is 10 times lower than current 4G.


Amidst the cacophony of all the perceived benefits of 5G, is sufficient attention being paid to the possible downside of this development? Firstly then, the question we raise is about who would be the main beneficiaries of this new technology. Telecom companies and tech giants are sure to make much revenue as a result of the new technology. Secondly, lower latency benefits those who livestream, do lots of video calls and importantly, those who play online games on their smartphones.


The possible repercussions on child gamers


Given that the number of children taking up online gaming as a hobby in India is increasing (while only about 18 per cent children in the 5-14 years age bracket are currently engaged in online gaming in India, the numbers are set to rise over the next few years) and also on the rise is the amount of time they spend on them, it is important to be cognizant of the effects the new tech will have on them and how they can be mitigated.


What then is online gaming? It refers to video games that offer online interactions with other players. Online games provide children with an avenue to have fun while engaging in teamwork, collaboration and imaginative adventure. It can also lend to improved problem-solving skills and dexterity. When done in a healthy manner, it can lend to children’s development and socialisation. The online gaming industry is among the fastest growing sectors in India. The increasing availability of smartphones and affordable data plans have hugely contributed to this trend. Compared to a hitherto requirement of an expensive console and games, a gaming enthusiast today only requires a smartphone and a decent data plan. Given the growing mobile phone usage in India, the onset of 5G mobile wireless technology is expected to result in a greater boom in online gaming.


The specific advantages brought about by 5G for gamers would include:

  1. Low latency and lag resulting in a smooth in-game experience

  2. High performance reliability in a multiplayer setting

  3. Possibility of cloud-based gaming

  4. Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) experiences


While enthusiasts and tech leaders hope that these developments will lend itself to making the gaming space more “inclusive”, various dangers lurk around the corner, especially for children. Two key factors to keep in mind when it comes to online gaming among children are- how much information players share and how many people they interact with.


Issues and solutions


What are the issues children could face in engaging with online gaming? In this regard, some issues that need to be borne in mind are:


  1. Some games allow children to play and chat with anyone around the world. This means that children could be exposed to offensive language, cyber stalking and cyber bullying. They are also at risk to online grooming by known and unknown persons.

  2. Since one can’t fully know if people online are who they claim to be, any personal details shared by children on such platforms could be misused and children could be at risk to different cyber crimes.

  3. Some games encourage in-app purchases that could run the risk of children spending huge amounts of money without realising it.

  4. Some apps may collect and monetise children’s data.

  5. ‘Griefing,’ a form of in-game harassment or tactic by which a player sabotages a game by manipulating aspects of the game while having no intention of winning, can lead to much distress for other players. In the process, children may find themselves being bullied, or bullying others.

  6. For children who are into gaming, they may not keep a track of the amount of time they are spending on it and there’s a risk of addiction to it. One reason is that in battle games it is difficult to stop a game in the middle of a battle as there are penalties for quitting and so children could feel compelled to not let their teammates down. Another is the fact that these games are designed to keep players hooked- dopamine is released when a player completes a level in the game and this pushes them to want to keep going. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that help one cope with pain and stress so if online gaming is considered as a mode of escape by players, that too could result in addiction.

  7. The ease of playing online games enabled by new technologies can keep players hooked (as discussed in the previous point) but also heightens the risk of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Mental health experts reveal that this can also have an adverse impact on those with ADHD and suicidal tendencies and may encourage self-harm and aggressive behaviours.

While we cannot wish the trend of online gaming away, some solutions that can be employed by different stakeholders to keep children safe, include the following:


  1. Parents and other caregivers need to stay involved in their children’s online lives by finding out what games they play and ensuring they are age-appropriate. It is important to be aware of the kind of information the game/app collects if its players. There’s really no alternative to spending time with children and having open conversations with them. Play these games with them if possible.

  2. Parents and caregivers should familiarise themselves with the settings of the console/mobile devices and the games their children play in order to ensure strangers do not contact them to exchange or trade game related items. Set up Parental Control or Family Settings on new video game consoles.

  3. Parents need to also help children understand the need for healthy boundaries (online and offline) and habits. Parents should educate themselves and their children about cyber security. It is important that while playing online games, children refrain from revealing their real names and other personal details and identity markers.

  4. Keep devices in shared family spaces and play sound occasionally via speakers instead of headphones to listen in on what is being spoken by different players.

  5. Understand the type of games children play and keep a tab on any in-game purchases. It is also important to keep oneself updated about advisories issued by the government on these topics.

  6. According to mental health experts, children can keep themselves from gaming addiction by deciding on fixed gaming hours, engaging in more physical and social activities, focusing on self-improvement and seeking professional advice where appropriate. Parents can be involved in these solutions along with their children.

  7. All players in the gaming industry should ideally form review committees to ensure that the best interests of children are considered before designing and marketing games. This would go a long way in ensuring that gaming companies are held responsible and accountable for their products and operations.

  8. Game publishers should make information about community guidelines, privacy policies and terms and conditions easily accessible and visible on the platform. They should enforce community guidelines on acceptable behaviours and those that fail to meet that standard. They must make provision to actively manage in-game communication and inappropriate behaviour. They must also provide information to parents to help them be more in control of their child’s gaming experience.


Concluding thoughts


Recognising the many dangers of the online gaming trend among children, the Ministry of Education had issued an advisory to parents and teachers on safe online gaming practices back in December 2021 (https://pib.gov.in/PressReleaseIframePage.aspx?PRID=1780177). This advisory charted out some Do’s and Don’ts towards children’s safety online. Given the current and expected developments in the wake of 5G services getting rolled out over the next few months, much more work will need to be actively done by the government, civil society and other stakeholders to prevent and actively redress the new issues that children are set to face.


While we recognise that children have a right to use the internet in different ways towards education, entertainment and self expression, it is important to be aware of the possible dangers of the internet from which we have a responsibility to protect our children. The key is to keep finding a balance between the need to protect children’s rights and keeping them safe online as parents, civil society and industry.


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