Grappling with internet addiction
There are plenty of benefits to expanding access to broadband, ranging from educational to environmental gains. Increasingly, there are drawbacks too.
Korea is a textbook example. The nation enjoys some of the fastest and cheapest broadband in the world. It also continually battles the adverse effects of being so wired, starting with internet addiction and cybercrime.
Since 2002, the Korean government's main solution has been its Seoul-based Center for Internet Addiction Prevention and Counseling. The organization's structure and methods may guide other countries grappling with similar challenges.
The center looks like a generic counseling office, with a few small offices linked to a waiting room. It is housed in the same building as the government agency KADO (Korea Agency For Digital Opportunity & Promotion), which runs it, along with other Internet-centric programs.
Over the years, KADO has developed a systematic and comprehensive approach to treating Internet addiction. KADO President Youngi Son estimates that as much as 15 per cent of Korea's population —some 7 million people — have an unhealthy attachment to the Web. "It's already a huge problem," he admits.
Only a fraction of this group — around 100 people a week — takes advantage of the center's free counseling. Most visitors (67 per cent) are teenagers who come through referrals and are accompanied by their parents. Treatment is voluntary. The typical patient is male and addicted to online games, according to KADO.
Once admitted, new patients take diagnostic tests to gauge their level of Internet overuse. Teens are subject to three evaluations, including a self-assessment and reports from their parent/guardian and a center counselor. Gamers are given an additional test to measure their attachment to games.
Patients are then categorized into one of three categories: seriously addicted, potentially addicted or normal. Those diagnosed with more severe problems are directed to hospitals or other treatment facilities.
The center offers individual and group sessions, special sessions for concerned parents and remote counseling by phone. During school vacations, it also runs "internet-free camps" that immerse patients in outdoor activities for several days.
At the center, therapists focus on pinpointing the cause of the addiction, then help patients adjust their behavior and hone their social skills. Counseling rooms are equipped with two-way mirrors so parents can observe sessions. At home, patients are asked to track their daily schedules and brainstorm alternative, offline activities to occupy their time.
Treatment length varies, but generally runs about six weeks. Departing patients must show they have reduced their Internet use and improved communication with family and friends.
90 satellite centers set up
New patients quickly fill available space. Counselors say the ranks are growing as teens get hooked on Web-enabled devices like cellphones and portable game consoles. In 2007, the center treated 72,559 people, a 40 per cent increase over 2006. To handle the flow, KADO has opened about 90 satellite centers around the country in places like post offices. It also continually trains new counselors — more than a hundred each year.
In recent years, KADO has expanded its prevention efforts to cover general "Information Ethics." It commissions IT ethics books and software and distributes them to public schools, starting at the preschool level. It also oversees a national campaign to prevent cybercrime and bullying — an issue that recently drove several Korean celebrities to suicide.
With KADO's assistance, more than 45 elementary and secondary schools have formed student-run cybercrime prevention clubs. At the other end of the spectrum, felons in Korea are required to complete cybercrime education as part of their probation.
Seven years of experience have given KADO confidence in its approach. Son says foreign representatives regularly visit and observe the addiction center. He anticipates more requests in the future, noting, "Every country that uses the Internet either already has an internet ethics problem or will face one soon."