Photo: Seokyong Lee
In Korea, a boot camp cure for web obsession
Martin Fackler November 26, 2007
MOKCHEON, South Korea - the compound, part boot camp, part rehab centre - resembles programs around the world for troubled youths. Drill instructors drive young men through military-style obstacle courses, counsellors lead group sessions and there are even therapeutic workshops on pottery and drumming.
But these young people are not battling alcohol or drugs. Rather, they have severe cases of what many in this country believe is a new and potentially deadly affliction: cyberspace addiction.
They come here, to the Jump Up Internet Rescue School, the first camp of its kind in South Korea, to be cured.
South Korea is one of the most wired nations on earth. Perhaps no other country has so fully embraced the internet. Ninety per cent of homes connect to cheap, high-speed broadband, online gaming is a professional sport and social life for the young revolves around the "PC bang", dim internet parlours that sit on almost every street corner.
But such ready access comes at a price as legions of obsessed users find that they cannot tear themselves away from their computer screens.
Compulsive internet use has been identified as a mental health issue in other countries, including the United States.
It is a national issue in South Korea where, in recent years, some users have died from exhaustion after playing online games for days on end. Increasingly, students are skipping school to stay online, behaviour that is considered shocking in this intensely competitive society.
Up to 30 per cent of South Koreans under 18, or about 2.4 million people, are at risk of internet addiction, says Ahn Dong-hyun, a child psychiatrist at Hanyang University in Seoul, who has just completed a three-year government-funded survey of the problem.
They spend at least two hours a day online, usually playing games or chatting. Of those, up to 250,000 probably show signs of actual addiction, such as an inability to stop themselves from using computers, rising levels of tolerance that drive them to seek ever longer sessions online and withdrawal symptoms such as anger and craving when prevented from logging on.
To address the problem the government has built a network of 140 internet-addiction counselling centres, in addition to treatment programs at almost 100 hospitals and, most recently, the Internet Rescue camp.
Researchers have developed a checklist for diagnosing the addiction and determining its severity, the K-Scale (the K is for Korea).
In September, South Korea held the first international symposium on internet addiction.
"Korea has been most aggressive in embracing the internet," says Koh Young-sam, head of the government-run Internet Addiction Counselling Centre. "Now we have to lead in dealing with its consequences."
Some health experts question whether internet or computer overuse is an addiction in the strict medical sense but many agree such obsessions are a growing problem in many countries.
Doctors in China and Taiwan report similar disorders among their youth. Dr Jerald J. Block, a psychiatrist at Oregon Health and Science University, estimates up to 9 million Americans may be at risk of a disorder which he calls pathological computer use. However, in the US only a handful of clinics specialises in treating it.
"Korea is on the leading edge," Block says. "They are ahead in defining and researching the problem and recognise as a society that they have a major issue."
The rescue camp, in a forested area about an hour south of Seoul, treats the most severe cases. The camp held its first two 12-day sessions this earlier year, each with 16 to 18 male participants. (South Korean researchers say an overwhelming majority of compulsive computer users are male.)
The camp is government funded and attendance is free. It is too early to determine how effective it will be but demand is high with up to five applications for each spot. Administrators plan to double the number of sessions next year.
The participants, who live at the camp, are denied computer use and allowed only an hour of mobile phone calls a day, to prevent them from playing online games via the phone. They follow a rigorous regimen of physical exercise and group activities, such as horseback riding, aimed at building emotional connections to the real world and weakening those with the virtual one.
"It is most important to provide them experience of a lifestyle without the internet," says Lee Yun-hee, a counsellor. "Young Koreans don't know what this is like."
Initially, campers were found sneaking off to go online but are now under constant surveillance - even while asleep - and are kept busy with chores, such as washing their clothes and cleaning their rooms.
One participant, Lee Chang-hoon, 15, began using the computer to pass the time while his parents were working and he was home alone. He says he quickly came to prefer the virtual world, where he seemed to enjoy more success and popularity than in the real one.
He spent 17 hours a day online, mostly looking at Japanese comics and playing a combat role-playing game called Sudden Attack. He played all night and skipped school two or three times a week to catch up on sleep.
When his parents told him he had to go to school, he reacted violently.
"He didn't seem to be able to control himself," says his mother, Kim Soon-yeol, a hairdresser. "He used to be so passionate about his favourite subjects [at school]. Now, he gives up easily and gets even more absorbed in his games."
Her son was at first reluctant to give up his pastime.
"I don't have a problem," Chang-hoon says three days after starting the camp. "Seventeen hours a day online is fine." But later that day, he seems to start changing his mind, if only slightly.
As a drill instructor barks orders, Chang-hoon and 17 other boys march through a cold autumn rain to the obstacle course. Wet and shivering, Chang-hoon climbs the first obstacle, a telephone pole with small metal rungs. At the top, he slowly stands up, legs quaking, arms outstretched for balance. Below, the other boys hold a safety rope attached to a harness on his chest.
"Do you have anything to tell your mother?" the drill instructor shouts from below.
"No!" he yells.
"Tell your mother you love her!" orders the instructor.
"I love you, my parents!" he says.
"Then jump!" orders the instructor. Chang-hoon squats and leaps to a nearby trapeze, catching it in his hands.
After Chang-hoon descends , he says, "That was better than games!"
Was it thrilling enough to wean him from the internet?
"I'm not thinking about games now, so maybe this will help," he says. "From now on, maybe I'll just spend five hours a day online."
The New York Times