Within weeks before the new government took over the administration of the country, I wrote to express my concern about what could be a lifelong threat to our youth community, bearing in mind this generation would be instrumental in swinging the votes in favour of change.
They took the bull by the horns as it were by organising themselves worldwide against all odds. And to everyone’s pleasant surprise, it worked a miracle!
On the anniversary of the feat, it is useful to drop a reminder of the top three concerns, namely, mental health like depression, vulnerability to screen devices, and last but not least, drug addiction which has been plaguing us for more than 50 years.
The drug war is yet to be won at the expense of innocent lives wasted in the millions, especially of our youth. To me this includes the use of tobacco, often dubbed as the “gateway” drug that allows users to experiment and eventually get hooked on hard and fatal drugs.
Going by the frequency and size of the drug busts reported in the media, they point to a mere tip of the iceberg. In other words, drugs are easily obtained once one knows who or how to seek them out. With the more recent daring actions and policies to curb smoking and vaping, it gives some new hope that the gateway to hard drugs can gradually be dismantled, as demonstrated in countries with more stringent tobacco control programmes.
But it is not going to be easy now because the “decriminalisation” of ganja is knocking on our doors. Substance-related addictive disorders, involving alcohol, tobacco, stimulants, marijuana (ganja) and opioids have been enlisted in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
The issue is, if we cannot do a good job to control tobacco use openly, how can we do better to control any of the other hard drugs that are clandestinely supplied, unless we go the Philippines way! Otherwise, the drug addiction scene will worsen with ganja now “readily” available, if not accessible.
Linked to this is the second life- threatening issue — screen devices which is the “new” tobacco as it is also a “gateway” to other “addictive” behaviours. Gaming is obviously one of them. In fact, it is the only behavioural addiction (as opposed to substance use) in the DSM-5 as identified by the experts. Implying that with indiscriminate use one can get hooked to it as evident in several countries that are fully wired up.
The analogy to unregulated tobacco use cannot be mistaken. The more the usage, the more vulnerable one gets to becoming addicted with symptoms like preoccupation with gaming, the need to spend more time to satisfy the urge, and the inability to reduce playing (texting), or unsuccessful attempts to quit gaming. Of late, the World Health Organisation (WHO), as though an endorsement, announced something similar in its International Classification of Diseases (ICD, 11th edition).
There are also evidences that some of the algorithms used in gaming are similar to those for gambling in casinos — meant to gradually hook the unsuspecting players based on frequency of use!
Hence, it is not surprising to see advertisements everywhere encouraging more usage by cutting down rates or other gimmicks to stay talking (read “smoking” for tobacco). So much so, as we see an increase in traffic, the content or quality remains poor, if not harmful. Still many just cannot do without it as portrayed by the world of social media, especially among the youth community.
Let it be known that the tobacco companies knew of the “addictive” properties of tobacco decades before, but chose not to share it with the users. Instead, they used it to gain “loyalty” to the product through addiction. But as mentioned no one cares.
Not until something tragic happens like the recent “Instagram-suicide” of a 16-year-old Sarawakian. Mental health is the greatest toll in a world of loneliness that surrounds most of those who tend to live “helplessly” via the e-devices. Devoid of any mechanism to cope, that is, the ability to appropriately participate or understand what the techno-centric world is all about — one would suffer slavishly at the altar of technology in harm’s way.
The Instagram suicide is just one of many cases that caught our attention. There are thousands of others who are trapped by similar dilemmas that we know nothing about. It is therefore time to stop procrastinating, and dig in deeper by deconstructing the “myths” that have been deliberately created to hold technology as the “new” tobacco in our lives.
History will repeat itself, unless we had better (re)learn as to what could be done to avoid the same consequences before the so-called “technology takeover” become widespread. By then it might matter not any more because it would be too late. The game is already over. It is one avoidable death too many if only we stop procrastinating!
The writer, an NST columnist for more than 20 years, is International Islamic University Malaysia rector.
Published in: The New Straits Times, 20 May 2019