Internet Addiction in Asia

Ransom Riggs

There's some debate over whether "internet addiction" is even properly classifiable as a behavioral disorder, but if it is, there's certainly a not-insignificant percentage of folks in the U.S. that would qualify. For whatever reason, it seems that the most shocking statistics I hear about internet addiction come from Asia. South Korea boasts of being the most wired country in the world, with 90% of homes partaking of inexpensive, fast internet connections. Not coincidentally, Korean experts have said that up to 30% of their population under 18, or about 2.5 million people, are at risk for internet addiction. From the New York Times:

They spend at least two hours a day online, usually playing games or chatting. Of those, up to a quarter million probably show signs of actual addiction, like an inability to stop themselves from using computers, rising levels of tolerance that drive them to seek ever longer sessions online, and withdrawal symptoms like anger and craving when prevented from logging on. It has become a national issue here in recent years, as users started dropping dead from exhaustion after playing online games for days on end. A growing number of students have skipped school to stay online, shockingly self-destructive behavior in this intensely competitive society.

Though China has far fewer homes connected to the internet, it has identified similar problems: one study claims that more than 10% of Chinese college students are internet addicts. What both Korea and China have done to combat these addictions is to create a system of "boot camps," which have stirred a bit of controversy of late.

The Times describes one Korean boot camp:

During a session, participants live at the camp, where they are denied computer use and allowed only one hour of cellphone calls a day, to prevent them from playing online games via the phone. They also follow a rigorous regimen of physical exercise and group activities, like horseback riding, aimed at building emotional connections to the real world and weakening those with the virtual one. Initially, the camp had problems with participants sneaking away to go online, even during a 10-minute break before lunch, Ms. Lee said. Now, the campers are under constant surveillance, including while asleep, and are kept busy with chores, like washing their clothes and cleaning their rooms.

Chinese techniques have been known to be more aggressive. Until recently, some Chinese doctors administered electroshock treatment to net-addicted teens; the practice was banned after an outcry by parents (and after it was shown to have little or no effect). Net addiction boot camps are rougher, too, and often force unwilling participants to endure hours of military-style drilling and physical punishments for infractions. Two kids have died at Chinese boot camps in recent months after being beaten. Now China's government has banned physical punishment in such camps.

A treatment program called ReStart recently opened here in the U.S., in Redmond, Washington. Treatment doesn't involve drills or beatings, though:

The five-acre center in Fall City, about 30 miles east of Seattle, can handle up to six patients at a time ... and uses a cold turkey approach. Patients spend their days in counseling and psychotherapy sessions, doing household chores, working on the grounds, going on outings, exercising and cooking.

Whatever the approach, the effectiveness of such programs, in Asia or in the U.S., has yet to be proven.