By Lester Kok and Eisen Teo
IF YOU think that spending too much time on the computer is bad for your grades - well, it is.
An American study by Ohio University has found that college students who used Facebook spent less time studying and scored lower grades than those who were not busy 'poking' their friends online.
Facebook users in the study of 219 undergraduates had grade point averages (GPAs) of between 3 and 3.5, while non-users had GPAs of between 3.5 and 4.
In Singapore, a Straits Times survey of 653 youths also found that those who admitted they were addicted to computer games generally did worse in school than those who said they were not addicted.
The poll, executed by online entertainment company Sulake, questioned teens between the ages of 12 and 18 on youth networking site Habbo Hotel.
Of those who were not addicted, 59 per cent said they scored mostly As and Bs, while 6 per cent scored mostly Cs and Ds and below. For addicts, 50 per cent scored mostly As and Bs while 14 per cent ended up with Cs and Ds and below.
In the two studies, young people who did worse spent about five hours a week studying, compared with an average of 15 hours a week on Facebook and up to 20 hours on computer games such as World of Warcraft, MapleStory and Counter-Strike.
One in five gamers plays more than 40 hours a week.
In Singapore, Facebook now generates more net traffic than even Yahoo and Google, according to Web information company Alexa.com. The number of Facebook accounts in Singapore now totals 1.8 million, more than double the 800,000 in February.
A Nielsen study showed the rate of people in Singapore picking up social networking doubled from 12 per cent last year to 23 per cent this year.
Like many of her peers, junior college student Sek Wanru, 18, spends three hours daily playing games and browsing Facebook.
'You're like an anomaly if you don't use Facebook,' she said. 'Even if I don't play the games, I'll still spend an hour-plus browsing photos and my friend's statuses.'
But once hooked, the consequences can be serious. Mr Poh Yeang Cherng, manager of Touch Cyber Wellness & Sports, said: 'The overuse of social networking sites usually becomes a problem when many areas of the students' daily functioning are affected.'
As of last month, the Touch cyber service has counselled 45 cases.
Ms Joyz Tan, a senior social worker from Fei Yue Community Services' Project 180, sees an average of seven cases a month. She said that for serious cases of addiction, the student might play truant because he is unable to wake up in time for school the next day.
'If they find that when they play truant and nothing happens to them, they will increase the frequency and eventually drop out of school.'
Beyond how much time they spend online, a youth's inability to function normally after shutting down the computer could also indicate that he is no longer in control of his life, said Associate Professor Paulin Straughan, a sociologist at the National University of Singapore and also a Nominated Member of Parliament.
Primary 6 pupil Jerry Lam is restricted by his parents to only an hour a day playing Counter-Strike.
But the 12-year-old pupil of Compassvale Primary School said he is addicted to the game - he cannot stop thinking about it.
'I can't concentrate on my studies. All I think of are the game maps, the weapons and my opponents,' he said.
To assess how addicted a child is, one must look at how games have an impact on his life, said Dr Daniel Fung, head of the child and adolescent psychiatry department at the Institute of Mental Health.
He said: 'Does he have problems with his studies or getting along with people?'
The Straits Times poll found that gaming addiction was likely to hurt a child's relationships with his parents and siblings, with just over half of them picking fights with relatives over the use of the computer.
Almost half said they felt angry or frustrated after losing a game. About seven in 10 vent their frustrations on themselves or their relatives.
The solution? Both Mr Poh and Prof Straughan agree that parents should play computer games with their children to understand both gaming and youth better.
On a similar vein, Assistant Professor Michael Netzley, who lectures on corporate communication practice at the Singapore Management University, called on parents and teachers to instil in youths the discipline and professionalism needed in using social networking tools.
'They need to help students understand how to use social networking responsibly,' he said.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.