Tablet computers

Younger children becoming digital addicts in South Korea

South Korea estimates that 160,000 children aged five to nine are hooked on the internet

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 November, 2012, 4:26am

Park Jung-in, an 11-year-old South Korean, sleeps with her Android smartphone instead of a teddy bear. When the screen beams with a morning alarm, she wakes up, picks up her glasses and scrolls through tens of unread messages from friends, shaking off drowsiness.

Throughout the day, the gadget is in her hands whether she is in school, in the restroom or on the street as she constantly types messages to her friends. Every hour or so, she taps open an application in her phone to feed her digital hamster.

"I get nervous when the battery falls below 20 per cent," Park said. "I find it stressful to stay out of the wireless hotspot zone for too long."

In South Korea, where the government provides counselling programmes and psychological treatment for an estimated two million people who cannot wean themselves from playing online computer games, youngsters such as Park have previously not been considered as potential addicts.

Here and in other parts of Asia, online addiction has long been associated with hardcore gamers who play online games for days on end, isolated from their school, work or family life and blurring the line between the real and fantasy online worlds. In a shocking 2010 case in South Korea, a three-month-old girl died after being fed just once a day by her parents who were consumed with marathon online game sessions.

Park is not unique and the government is concerned enough to make it mandatory for children as young as three to be schooled in controlling their device and Internet use.

Her obsession with being online is a byproduct of being reared in one of the world's most digitally connected societies where 98 per cent of households have broadband internet and nearly two-thirds of people have a smartphone.

But some now fret about the effects that South Korea's digital utopia is having on its children, part of the first generation to play online games on smartphones, tablets and other devices even before they can read and write.

New mobile devices responding instantly to a touch of a finger seem to make children increasingly restless and lacking in empathy, said Kim Jun-hee, a teacher who conducted an eight-month study on internet safety and addiction education for pre-school children.

"I've been teaching at kindergartens for more than 10 years now but, compared to the past, kids these days are unable to control their impulses."

The National Information Society Agency, or NIA, estimates 160,000 South Korean children aged between five and nine are addicted to the internet either through smartphones, tablet computers or personal computers. Such children appear animated when using gadgets but distracted and nervous when they are cut off from the devices and will forgo eating or going to the toilet so they can continue playing online, according to the agency.

The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists Internet Use Disorder as meriting further study. Asian countries that have experienced explosive internet growth, such as China and South Korea, are most active in researching whether Internet addiction should be recognised as a mental illness, said Lee Hae-kook, a psychiatry professor at Catholic University of Korea.