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Addiction to the Internet – Another alarming epidemic

by Yehudit Haspel Ben-Dak, South Korea

March 2010. A three-month-old baby girl was found dead in Seoul. The circumstances of her death have caused outrage in South Korea and around the world. Her parents, heavy computer game addicts, used to leave her days unattended. Ironically, the parents took care of their devotion and took care of the character of a virtual baby girl in a video game, the same game through which they met and fell in love, while neglecting a flesh-and-blood girl, who was dying in the next room. Her name was Kim Sarang, “Love” in Korean.

In the 1990s, South Korea decided to become the world’s leading Internet nation. With government encouragement, local telecommunications companies have begun deploying advanced infrastructure and offering the public a fast network connection at discounted prices. The administration’s ambitions – to allow easy and direct access to a great deal of information and to connect their country to the West – have succeeded beyond expectations. in early 2016, the average surfing speed in South Korea is the fastest in the world, at 29 megabits per second, with close to 70% of the population connected to broadband Internet. Israel, for comparison, is in 28th place.

Thanks to this data, South Korea is considered one of the most digital and networked nation in the world, and the phenomenon is not limited to the personal computer screen. Korea adores the gaming culture, and media channels broadcast live games that last 24 hours in professional competitions. The professional players become adored figures, and the audience devoutly attends every tournament. Their status is equal to that of Korean movie and pop stars, they are received with mass screams and are a model to be admired.

Government policy /Photo Yehudit Haspel Ben-Dak

In an attempt to limit the extent of the epidemic, the government passed the “Cinderella Act,” in 2011, commonly known as the “Shutdown Law,” which prevents children under the age of 16 from accessing gaming websites between midnight and 6 a.m. Under the system, anyone in South Korea wishing to log into those sites must enter their age-encoded national I.D. But this law is easily circumvented through the identity cards of older siblings, other adults and even parents.

Another measure taken was by the Ministry of Public Administration and Security “Comprehensive Plan to Resolve and Prevent Internet Addiction” also known as the “I-ACTION 2012,” which is a set of measures designed to fight the rise in the number of Internet addicts. The term ACTION stands for Attention, Counseling, Training, Institution, Outcome and Networks

The next step in the war on the digital phenomenon was the opening of dozens of rehab villages – both governmental and private – established in recent years in the country. Most of them are deliberately located some distance from the temptations of the capital, and some in villages outside it, between pastoral landscapes and in dense forests.

A visit to a rehab village

In 2017 I was invited to one of dozens Internet rehab villages in South Korea.  About one and half hour North East of Seoul, among dense forests and small villages, there was a large sign at the entrance “Dure Forest Creative School”. The sign does not give away what is happening within its walls. “We call it a school and not a rehab facility, mainly for the positive image. That the addicts and their parents will not be deterred,” explains Amine Kim, son of the institute’s founder and head of the village’s academic program. “We want a student who comes here not to think that he is coming into rehab, but to shape his future.”

Photo credit Yehudit Haspel Ben-Dak

The village, or “creative school,” operates in a regular educational format until the early afternoon, after which it combines group treatments and activities in nature. Among other things, children can ride bicycles, engage in mountaineering, gardening, music, carpentry or animal care I joined them for an archery class under the guidance of a former Olympic champion.

 The coach is tough and demanding but encouraging as well.  “The children need to require a lot of effort and concentration to be successful. It is a crucial part of the healing process”, the coach asserts. Later I was welcomed warmly by the computer programming students and their instructor who demonstrates on a large smartboard how to program games, thus effectively instilling in her students the important principle: how to use computers in non-destructive and addicting path.

The competition is embedded in the Korean society’s DNA. “Korea is a very competitive country. The method emphasizes English, math and science, and once the student collapses under pressure and stops competing, he leaves the normative circle in a process that is irreversible, “explains Amine, who together with the team of instructors teaches the children that there are other ways to play besides the computer. Addicted to computer games. Here in the village, we show them that there are other options such as literature, sports and art that are negligible topics in the Korean education system, which do not see them as adding value to the development of the children. Even parents think it’s a waste of time…”

In school/ Photo Yehudit Haspel Ben-Dak

One of addicts, is 17-year-old Samuel Choi, skinny and shy. He is not afraid to admit his weaknesses during one of the cafeteria lunch breaks. “Before I came here – I did not study at all. I played more than ten hours a day and did not concentrate on studies. I even ate at the computer. Here I at least try to cope alone. Sometimes we get help from teachers. I started reading again, and I even watch video games – but not playing. Yes, I miss games, but here I invest more in friendships with children and nature walks. I decided with the parents on the move last year, and I will probably stay here for a long time. I need to change years of thinking and behavior patterns”.

Amine Kim explains: “If we treat young people like drug addicts – they will be ashamed and will not reach the rehab villages. We do not constantly mention being addicted, but rather emphasize the fun of nature experiences. There is no complete avoidance of the computer and no one can be forced to stay, but the chance of getting out of the cycle of addiction depends on the nature of the child”.

I sat with Ai-Li (pseudonym), 16, and her friend at lunch who eats with the other Internet addicsts and counselors in the shared cafeteria as part of the center’s policy. “I really did not want to come here,” she shared. “It’s not easy to leave the crazy game clubs in Seoul. I was part of this imaginary world, and it gave me a lot of strength and desire to continue living. The school did not interest me, I was a bad student and I did not have many friends because they always saw me as an outsider and stayed away from me. But in the computer’s games world, I was a queen, everyone loved to compete with me or play together”, she recalls.

In achool/ Photo Yehudit Haspel Ben-Dak

She emphasizes how difficult it is to give up games and at the same time remembers her parents’ pain. “Everyone in the family learns and gets good jobs and I wanted to prove to them that I was successful at something. I tried several times to stop playing for so long – sometimes I played 10 hours a day – but I always fell back. The temptation was stronger than me. At one point no one in the family wanted to talk to me. ” They were ashamed of me, and then my parents forced me to come here with the help of the welfare services.” The initial coping, she said, was typical of any rehab process. “I had a very deep crisis. I did not cooperate but I saw that others also have a hard time and they at least try. It’s really not easy because I have a lot more passion to play. It seems to me that I should be here a long time”.

Unlike other rehab centers, which are based on extreme rigidity while adopting the 12-step method of rehab drugs and alcohol, the village relies on more liberal treatment. “If we treat young people like drug addicts, they will be ashamed and will not come here,” the founder’s son explained. “We do not constantly mention being addicted, but rather emphasize the activities outside, and the fun of nature experiences.

 There is no complete avoidance of the computer. In the past our center was closed and children could not visit at home, but we became an open center on weekends, no one can be forced to stay. The chance of getting out of the cycle of addiction depends on the character of the child,” Amine concludes.

A PC club in Seoul. Youth playing for hours/ photo Yehudit Haspel Ben-Dak

A worldwide epidemic

Problematic computer use is a growing social issue which is being debated worldwide. Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) ruins lives by causing neurological complications, psychological disturbances, and social problems. Surveys in the United States and Europe have indicated alarming prevalence rates between 1.5 and 8.2%.

Somewhere in 2006, In China, the country where the first Internet rehab facility in the world was the government has already declared an addiction to the network as an “epidemic”, and it treats it as the main health problem on the agenda. The success rate of the first center was 70 percent of quitters, and as a result, more than 200 rehab institutions have been established in the country. Most of them, by the way, are run by former military personnel who treat the hospitalized with a heavy hand, which sometimes also includes electric shocks – all with the aim of getting them back on track.

In the US, the first rehab center of its kind to treat screen addicts was “reSTART” in Seattle. The treatment includes hospitalization for three months at a cost of $ 15,000 per month. Today they have dozens of busy clinics around the country.

In Japan, the government was able to identify the phenomenon, following a study conducted by the Japanese Ministry of Education, which led to the opening of rehabilitation centers (FASTING CAMPS) to which addicts are sent, with the goal of treatment not abstinence and complete disconnection from technology.

           Surprisingly, Algeria may be the first African country to develop a rehabilitation center for Internet fanatics in 2016. Although in Israel the Internet addiction is growing tremendously, especially with young children and adolescence, there isn’t many places to take care of this alarming phenomena except few clinics who also take care of other addictions like drugs, alcohol sex, gambling and shopping.  

So far, no designated Internet rehab despite the growing alarming problem, except the TLM chain, with 18 branches around Israel. The treatment includes 12 sessions of 50 minutes each (without hospitalization) at a cost of NIS 320 per session. In the future, TLM intends to open a hospitalization ward, parallel to the clinic section.

Precisely, some help for the ultra-Orthodox Jewish people who became addicted comes from “Out-Net”, a rehab website which provides an online counseling as well as a personal coaching and the service is done in a complete discreet setting. As for the Orthodox world, the Internet is a great threat and they put a lot of efforts to combat this alarming addiction.

In an interview to MAKO I 2013, Prof. Amichai-Hamburger, Head of the Center for the Study of Internet Psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, already expressed his worries, “This is the addiction of the modern world, and it worries me greatly. I am sure that this kind of addiction/disease will enter the next edition of the DSM (The Book of Diagnosis and Diseases of the American Psychiatric Association)”. Other experts also believe that internet addiction will soon be recognized as a psychological disorder – and that then you may also get the attention it deserves here in Israel.”

A different reaction comes from an underground counter-movement arose for this phenomenon, which sought to uproot it called it, JOMO – Joy Of Missing Out, the pleasure of missing out on free translation. It seeks to be home for all those who want to give up. Disconnect from the technology at important moments, fund its use and start experiencing experiences to the fullest – and not through the smartphone camera. Its followers are multiplying in the world – but the change they seek to bring about proves to be almost impossible.

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