Chong peered briefly at the clock on his bedroom wall before stretching out his arms. It was just past midnight and he was a tad tired. But he was reluctant to go to bed, so he stood up, stretched once again and turned his attention back to the computer screen.
Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, the 15-year-old smiled as a game began loading. By the time it was over, it was past 3am and Chong had been staring at the monitor for close to eight hours, barring a few washroom breaks and a trip to the refrigerator to grab a sandwich.
The South Korean teenager is not alone. In his country, the most wired nation on earth where 90 per cent of households are connected to cheap, high-speed broadband, an estimated 30 per cent of teenagers and two million users are Internet addicts.
Online games are the most popular pastime for 80 per cent of Koreans and the government, which invested heavily in the IT boom, now finds itself passing laws to curb Internet use and fund boot camps and therapies to treat patients suffering from the debilitating effects of what experts believe will be a worldwide epidemic in the future.
‘It breaks my heart,’ says Chong’s mother. ‘He only gets up to eat or go to the toilet.’
Chong admits: ‘Last summer holiday,s I got up around 11 and played games for 13-14 hours non-stop. I had a sore back from sitting all the time but I kept playing anyway, so I think I’m addicted.’
The youngster was sent to the Jump Up Internet Rescue School for 12 days on a programme involving physical exercise and face-to-face interaction with other children.
As part of the initiative, parents are taught how to help their children overcome their addiction and at the end of the course, children make a pledge to spend less time on the Internet. Unfortunately, South Korea isn’t the only country where the number of Internet addicts is growing.
In the UAE too, the number of people who use social media for more than five hours every day is alarming. A recent survey conducted by the Abu Dhabi Education Council found that more than one in four students in the capital use social media for five hours or more a day.
A Gulf News report last year found that video games could have beneficial effects if played in moderation but, unregulated, it could become an addiction.
Madeeha Afridi, counselling psychologist and mindfulness trainer at The LightHouse Arabia Centre for Wellbeing in Jumeirah, Dubai, says males between 12 and 20 years old are most likely to be at risk of developing an addiction to video gaming, but adults can also become addicted.
She adds that if one spends over 10 hours a week gaming, they could be at risk.
Doctors believe the prevalence of single-child families in South Korea helps feed the epidemic but think it is an early sign of what could happen around the world, thus labelling it a significant public health threat.
It is not uncommon for some gamers in South Korea to go for days without sleeping. In 2005, a gamer played for 50 hours non-stop before he fell to the floor dead from exhaustion and dehydration.
Hugely popular PC Bangs – dimly-lit LAN gaming centres typical to South Korea where enthusiasts spend minimal time interacting with each other but devote their emotions to their online world – must now shut their doors to under-16s between midnight and 6am under the new Cinderella Law.
A staggering 22 deaths have been attributed to gaming in the country, including a three-month-old baby Sarang who starved to death as parents Kim Jae-beom and Kim Yun-jeong played online.
Kim Jae-beom told the police he wasn’t sure what killed his daughter but the authorities were unequivocal: the baby had died of malnutrition as a result of her parents’ online gaming addiction.
Talented gamers can make a good living in South Korea by competing in championships or selling virtual money for real cash. This gold farming was the main source of income for the Kims. They would go to a PC Bang for long periods of time because it was cheaper that way. For the price of seven hours, their lawyer said, they could play for 10 hours. They were trying to save money. The couple pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter.
Treatment varies from family camps geared up to prevent addiction, to hospital therapy involving electrodes to monitor brain activity and antidepressants for addicts. Symptoms include sleep deprivation, mood swings and seizure, to name a few.
Yet the virtual gaming world remains a popular among teenagers.
In contrast to many of the empathetic treatments offered to addicts in other countries, harsh, military-style boot camps are offered in China, where former soldiers supervise addicts through the rehabilitation process, which involves psychological examinations and extensive physical training, as well as ethics classes, dance training and domesticity lessons during their stays, which can last as long as six months.
Across the globe in Hartford in Connecticut, US, Nick was always a model student with A grades in his exams.
His life, and that of his family, turned upside down when he was given a laptop by his high school and the attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder-sufferer started spending up to six hours a day playing games online instead of studying. ‘It gave me instant gratification,’ he says. ‘I felt panic and had to go on the computer or I would be bored to death.
‘It felt bad not connecting with the world.’
In a country where 80 per cent of the population has access to the Internet, Nick’s parents began to worry and tried to limit his hours online.
They became increasingly alarmed by the aggressive way he would follow them around the house asking for the computer.
‘He would storm around the house following us saying he had to do things,’ says his mum Roslyn. ‘He was kind of frightening.
‘At times we almost felt we had to defend ourselves. ‘I’d look at him and say, “Look at yourself. You’re like an addict. You’re scary”.’
Finally Nick admitted to her that he was sick and couldn’t handle it any longer. They sought treatment but, like many families in the same situation, found it hard to find a practitioner who accepted that Internet addiction exists as a condition.
He was treated successfully with a form of light therapy usually aimed at war veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, which helps the brain to process distressing memories. Nick now plays football for his school and hasn’t been online for months.
‘It really helped me in terms of using a computer just for gaming and not just thinking of it as a way to get out of life,’ he says, breaking off from his new-found hobby of repairing cars in the garage with his father.
‘I feel happy to connect to the world itself and not just connect to the Internet.’
Dr Hilarie Cash, founding member and chief clinical officer of reSTART, an Internet addiction rehabilitation centre in Washington, US, says that as far back as 1994 in her Seattle private practice, she started seeing clients coming in where the common variable to their problems was the Internet: gaming, having affairs in an online forum or being hooked to day trading for extended periods of time.
Aware there were no specialised places to send people for treatment, she set up reSTART, treating up to five patients at any one time.
‘Most are between 18 and 28 years old and many come under duress from their parents who tell them they need to get help whether or not they realise it – leave the house or have treatment,’ she explains.
The minimum stay is 45 days, but the average is 55.
During the first of two phases, the goal is to take time away from technology, ‘long enough to rewire their brains a bit. It’s a digital detox to learn to experience some of the things they need, together with a complete thorough plan for their future.’
There’s a strong emphasis on health and fitness. Patients work out every day and eat healthy food. They are taught some of the social skills they lack due to their abandonment of the real world in favour of their online existence and undergo individual therapy with counsellors. In the second phase, patients live in Oxford houses – accommodation people rent with a strict set of rules, and share with others in recovery from technology issues.
‘They don’t have Internet in their apartment,’ says Dr Cash. ‘They have to access it through us in our computer lab.
‘Then they start work or go back to college – there’s no time limit how long they can stay.
‘People have to use computers these days, so it’s like a food addiction – people need to eat healthily, not never eat food again. They’ll have triggering experiences to tempt them back and peers will discuss it all the time.’
She adds that in many ways it’s harder to beat than other addictive substances. You can say no to Facebook and gaming but it’s more complicated when technology is everywhere in our daily lives.
‘A lot of professionals are not really aware of the extent of the problem or that it is what it is,’ she says. ‘A lot of people think it’s an underlying symptom of depression or anxiety but it’s functioning exactly the same way as drugs and alcohol.’
It is more dangerous when it involves children and youth.
‘Parents are incredibly naïve, and also the [addiction pushers] themselves,’ says Dr Cash. ‘They are always using their devices, looking at phones and tablets constantly and are perfectly happy for their kids to do the same.
‘Until it shows up as a real problem in the home, it’s acceptable and convenient because they don’t have to run their kids around as much; they’re happy in their bedrooms on the Internet. Many parents are ignorant about child development so they are perpetuating it. It’s the junk food of the mind.’
The advent of small digital devices like tablets and smartphones has hastened the addiction process, she adds. ‘This means almost everyone is carrying a powerful computer around with them. Teachers want children to work on them and parents hand them to infants who get mesmerised by the flashes and noises. ‘Access is getting easier and the problems are going to get worse. We’re all being carried along on a tide and no one is making an effort to turn the tide.’
She praised the South Korean authorities for taking the issue seriously and investing in the distribution of literature to all children, teachers and parents to educate and develop healthy Internet use.
Testimonials on reSTART’s website suggest that sufferers and their families are grateful to Dr Cash and her team, in some cases for saving lives. One mother, identified only as Mary, wrote: ‘I think that you all saved his life last April. He needed round-the-clock support, and you provided it – for that I’ll always be thankful.
‘Next, you gave my son an opportunity to experience life in a different way, and while he didn’t always enjoy it, he recognised the positive effects that healthy living had on his life.
‘It may not seem like much to anyone else, but in my mind it’s the difference between life and death.’ Aformer addict, treated successfully for his issues, wrote: ‘ReSTART has changed my life for the better in more ways than I have time to relate to you.
‘As someone who has been struggling with Internet addiction for a long time, I was always extremely sensitive with regard to handing over control of any part of my life to someone else.
‘At first, I thought coming to reSTART would be a loss of freedom, in a way in which I wouldn’t be able to handle. However, after much contemplation, I realised that attending reSTART would be the first truly free choice I had made in a very long time; it dawned on me that for many years I had been a slave to my computer. All of my interests and ambitions had been sucked in by this black hole, and I was the equivalent of a mindless zombie. I now feel freer than ever before.
‘Another concern I had was that I wouldn’t be able to measure up to my peers. I was very aware of the fact that as a result of withdrawing from society for a number of years a lot more than just my social skills were stunted. But reSTART helped me ease into [my new life].
‘Lastly, the wall of denial was extremely hard to break down. Denial for me manifested itself in my belief that I could turn over a new leaf on my own. I hoped that one day I’d wake up in the morning and suddenly begin to live a new, healthy lifestyle, but every day I woke up in the same reality. I thought that I could regulate my gaming use on my own, but I was proven wrong on every occasion I tried. As I’ve learned, addictive patterns physically change the composition of your brain. It’s not a willpower problem or character defect, and there are no easy solutions.’
‘The term Internet addiction can be confusing,’ says Dr Paul McLaren, consultant psychiatrist at The Priory Hospital Hayes Grove, Kent, in the UK.
‘People don’t get addicted to a communications network as such, but they can definitely get addicted to software applications, which use the Internet to increase people’s access, and speed of response. And Internet use has increased hugely; for many young people, it is their preferred channel of communication and recreation.
‘There’s an increasing prevalence of addiction to online gambling, online shopping and looking for relationships. All these behaviours were recognised as addictive before the Internet was available. But what the Internet does is enable them to be delivered in an immediate and flexible way, which is much more difficult to control. The issue is not how much time an individual spends on Internet applications, but whether they are in control of their behaviour, or if it causes them harm.
‘The key to treatment is understanding the problem. Generalised treatment for Internet addiction is unlikely to help. The important issue is – is this an addiction, or is the individual using the behaviour to self-medicate for emotional distress, such as depression? What is driving the online behaviour? Is there evidence of other addictive behaviour? Sometimes all that’s necessary is recognition that a behaviour has become problematic. A frank acknowledgement of the problem may be enough to change behaviour.
‘If that does not help, then psychological treatment is the next step. This should focus initially on modifying current behaviour. If the individual can stop, then any underlying condition such as depression can then be treated directly. Psychiatric medication may be required. If there is clear evidence of addiction, then the sufferer may benefit from a 12-step recovery programme focused on the behaviour.
‘Treatment is always more effective if the individual recognises they need help and is motivated to seek it out.
‘If a parent is concerned about the amount of time a young person spends online, they need to find out what he or she is doing exactly. Previous generations spent long periods of time buried in books or glued to the TV, so just spending time online does not in itself mean there is a problem. What’s crucial whether what they are doing is harmful. Cultivating and managing social contacts may be positive. Young people living in isolation may be using it to enhance social development. But compulsive shopping or gambling are destructive and need to be addressed.
‘Warning signs may be a change in behaviour, such as withdrawing from social contacts or other interests, or getting irritable or emotional if access is denied or limited.
‘My view is that for most young people, the advantages of Internet use outweigh the risks. But if they are addicted to an application, then that can and will undermine their self-esteem. It can lead to deception, debt and damage relationships. The harm can manifest itself in depression, hopelessness, and, in rare cases suicidal behaviour.’