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Thursday, September 3, 2009

A wired world

"What is your hobby?"
"Computer games!"

It's the same response, student after student, week after week. Occasionally you may get the odd "watching TV" or "playing piano" but nine times out of 10, students of all ages declare that their favorite pastime is playing computer games.

And it makes sense. "Frontline" did a story calling South Korea the most wired nation in the world and it's clear just walking around -- from busy Seoul intersections to hiking trails tucked into the mountains, this is a connected country.

Walking down the sidewalk this afternoon, almost every person I passed was on a cell phone. While that's no different than you'd expect in the United States, many of the children walked hunched over, completely absorbed by the game playing on their cell phones.

This is a country with at least one PC bang (internet room) on every corner and where at least eight in 10 households are connected to the Internet.

According to a survey of 50 nations by AC Nielsen... 88 percent of people surveyed in South Korea said that they have at least one computer at home, which was the highest rate in the world. Hong Kong (84 percent), Taiwan (81 percent), Singapore (77 percent) and the United States (77 percent) followed in the rankings.

Sometimes I ask kids what they miss most from home while at English camp. A few students talk about families or pets but the majority say they miss their computer.

The government has recognized this growing obsession with gaming and begun diagnosing and treating the problem of Internet addiction, calling it one of South Korea's "most serious issues." In Korea, 10 people have died of blood clots caused from sitting too long in a PC bang.

The government estimates that around 210,000 South Korean children are affected and in need of treatment, of whom 80 per cent might need drugs targeting the brain and nearly a quarter could need to go to hospital. Since the average high school pupil there spends about 23 hours per week gaming... another 1.2 million are believed to be at risk of addiction and require basic counseling.

While I hope that the Korean government doesn't react as strongly as China, which has developed frighteningly-intense Internet boot camps to break the obsession, are drugs really the answer?

Set up time limits at PC bangs, encourage students to get involved in non-computer extracurricular activities, give homework assignments that don't require the Internet or -- maybe most crucially -- make parents take responsibility for their children's computer habits.

Internet addiction: does it exist?