South Korea Opens Boot Camp to Confront Internet Addiction


The compound - part boot camp, part rehab center - resembles programs around the world for troubled youths.

Drill instructors drive young men through military-style obstacle courses, counselors lead group sessions, and there are even therapeutic workshops on pottery and drumming.

South Korea boasts of being the most wired nation on earth. In fact, perhaps no other country has so fully embraced the Internet. Ninety percent 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 parlors that sit on virtually every street corner.

But such ready access to the Web has come at a price, as legions of obsessed users find that they cannot tear themselves away from their computers.

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.

Up to 30 percent of South Koreans under 18, or about 2.4 million people, are at risk of Internet addiction, said Ahn Dong Hyun, a child psychiatrist at Hanyang University who just completed a three-year government-financed survey of the problem.

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.

To address the problem, the government has built a network of 140 Internet-addiction counseling centers, in addition to treatment programs at almost 100 hospitals and, most recently, the Internet Rescue camp, which started this summer. Researchers have developed a checklist for diagnosing the addiction and determining its severity, the K-Scale. (The K is for Korea.)

The rescue camp, in a forested area about an hour south of Seoul, was created to treat the most severe cases. The camp is entirely paid for by the government, making it tuition-free.

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. "It is most important to provide them experience of a lifestyle without the Internet," said Lee Yun Hee, a counselor. "Young Koreans don't know what this is like."

South Korea's gaming addicts. (BBC News)

Experts say the definition of an addict is less to do with the number of hours spent online, but more about the central role computers and the internet can play in someone's life.

Symptoms include:

  • Preoccupation with the internet
  • The inability to perform normal tasks in everyday life
  • Losing control over yourself
  • The disruption of daily routines and lifestyles
  • Feeling nervous and anxious when not online

Visualising their dreams can help addicts wake up to reality and reduce time spent at the computer, counsellors believe.


blog comments powered by Disqus