November 21, 2007

Boot Camp for Internet Addicts?

Many Americans (myself included) spend a large portion of their days on the internet. Whether it is going through piles of email, reading news sites and blogs, catching up with friends or playing games, we spend a lot of time online. But how many of us consider our use of the internet an addiction, one serious enough to require treatment?

While it’s difficult to imagine this becoming an epidemic anytime soon in the U.S., South Korea has recently taken strong measures to combat internet addiction. A New York Times article from Sunday describes the response effort being undertaken by the world’s most-wired nation. The Korean government is focusing its attention on youth under 18, of whom it believes up to 30% are at risk of internet addiction.

This is not a recent a phenomenon in South Korea either. Headlines around the world covered the 2005 death of a 28-year-old man who died after playing computer games nearly nonstop for 50 hours. Now, however, with a three-year survey on gaming completed, the government wants to address the problem head-on. In addition to opening 140 internet addiction counseling centers, it launched its “Internet Rescue camp” this summer for the most seriously afflicted addicts. Thus far, the participants have all been male during the 12-day sessions, which are similar to many alcohol and drug addiction programs in the U.S., with the focus on vigorous outdoor activities and team building to wean the participants off of their addiction.

This focus on South Korea’s problems with online gaming is not to deny that American youth (and adults) can exhibit similar levels of internet use. A Washington Post article from last year highlights the popularity and intensive playing of “World of Warcraft” domestically, and the U.S. opened its first treatment facility, the Center for Internet Addiction, in 1995.

However, the recent concerns in South Korea have emerged against a very different backdrop. The Times article reveals that 90% of South Korean households have a broadband connection, and internet cafes abound throughout the country. This number compares with our current estimate that half of Americans currently have broadband connections at home.

In addition, while the New York Times article does not address the role of parents in monitoring their children’s use of the internet, we know from recent Pew data that 55% of parents have rules about how much time their children can spend online and 58% have rules about how much time their children can spend playing video games.

Finally, there may be cultural factors contributing to the current state of play in South Korea. Asian countries, especially Japan, have dominated the video game creation market, as seen in the decades-long popularity and success of the Japanese-based Nintendo. In addition, role-playing games like the Final Fantasy series, which take a significant time commitment to complete, originated in Japan.

We’ll just have to wait to see if Korea’s efforts to curb internet addiction are successful. Who knows, maybe the U.S. will have these boot camps located around the country some day. Or maybe by the time most Americans have broadband access at home, there will be an entirely different form of entertainment sucking up our free time. That’s the beauty of the internet — we usually can’t predict the future until we get there.