South Korea boasts some of the world's fastest Internet connections. That's perfect for playing online games, which is a sort of national pastime there. Now there's a growing fear that Korean children are becoming addicted to the net. But some question whether Internet addiction is an addiction at all.
Online gaming is hugely popular in South Korea
Twelve year old Oh Tae June says he has a problem. He rocks back in forth in a vinyl chair and explains why his parents sent him to a special 12 day camp that’s supposed to help break him of a bad habit.
Oh says he came to the Internet Rescue camp to break his addiction to the Internet. He used to play games a lot, sometimes he’d spend 16 hours a day in front of a computer. He adds his parents always got angry at him. There are 20 other kids at the camp who are just like Oh.
Throughout the program the boys learn new hobbies like drumming, making pottery or camping outdoors. Anything to get their minds off the Internet.
Counselling to help addicts
This plus multiple sessions of anger management and one on one counseling has reduced the amount of time they spend online once they go back home.
That's according to the Korea Youth Counseling Institute, the organization that runs the Internet Rescue Camp.
Counselor Jang Have Ah says 14 point four percent of South Korea's nine million schoolchildren show signs of Internet addiction. She says this high number has a lot to do with South Korea’s high speed Internet connections and changes to the traditional family structure.
“Our government pushed us to embrace the IT industry and that's caused negative side effects like online ad diction”, Jang says. “This happened as families became smaller and children were left alone while both parents were out working.”
She defines this compulsion as spending four hours or more online each day; symptoms include developing stiff wrists and hearing sounds from online games even when offline.
In response to this condition’s prevalence, Seoul has opened hundreds of Internet counseling centers nationwide and supports treatment programs at dozens of hospitals. The rescue camp receives 100 percent funding from the government.
Scepticism about the treatment
But some critics say this is a waste of taxpayers' money. Whang Sang Min is a psychology professor at Yonsei University and has written several books about Korean online culture. He says just because someone spends an excessive amount of time online does not mean they are actually addicted.
"I interviewed lots of online gamers, who look like really addicted kid. They spend 5, 7 hours per day on playing games. But one day, some of them said they don't like this game anymore, they want to change it. That's the day they get rid of all their account and items and they change it, and they don't play anymore. So, it's not addictive behaviors."
Whang says programs like the Internet rescue camp, which use methods for treating drug or alcohol abuse, can't adequately resolve the problems that might cause a person to go online compulsively.
But the on-line addiction treatment seems to have worked for Oh Tae June. He says he doesn't really miss playing online games at all and is sure that he won't go back to his old ways once he returns home.
Oh says he’s sure he will be able to do the same things there that he did here. He thinks he’ll maybe play some sports, like soccer, baseball or basketball instead of going online.