The Internet (Addiction) Age

BOB GARFIELD: Last summer, we featured a story about the first Internet addiction treatment center in the United States. At the time, it had only one patient, and we thought it was something of a – well, not, not joke, exactly, but maybe a hysterical reaction to a non-problem.

Well, we might not be finding it all that funny in the future, according to the new Frontline episode which airs on PBS nationwide next week. Digital Nation, an hour-long program about the consequences of our increasingly wired lives, is co-hosted by Douglas Rushkoff, who kindly offered to re-cut a small portion of the TV program for our radio show.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Back in the day, the early 1990s, or three centuries ago, in Internet years, those of us looking toward America’s digital future always turned to Asia for a glimpse of what might soon happen here. Asia and South Korea, in particular, seemed to be leaving us in the dust as far as technology usage, with their government literally rebuilding their society around devices that weren’t even on the market here, at least, not yet.

But now that texting is a road hazard, Facebook is our kids’ social life and gaming is perhaps the only thriving entertainment business, many of us are wondering just how digital our lives might yet become and what the heck we’re supposed to do about it. So I went to Korea to see what answers they might have for us about our own future confronting the digital revolution. It’s not altogether pretty.

South Korea has become one of the first countries to confront the fallout of the digital revolution. Many say the national gaming obsession is getting out of hand and taking a toll on the nation’s youth.

[KOREAN]

CHUNG YOUNG-IL, VIA INTERPRETER: It’s pretty extreme. I play seven or eight hours a day. Then on weekends I stay up all night on the computer.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Over the last year, 15-year-old Chung Young-il has dropped from the top of his class to the bottom. His mother blames the computer.

[KOREAN]

CHUNG YOUNG-IL’S MOTHER, VIA INTERPRETER: When Yung-il starts a game, he doesn’t know when to stop and he just plays for hours. I think if I can’t control him right now, I may lose my son. This is an addiction. Only an addict could act this way.

[KOREAN]

DR. AHN DONG-HYUN, VIA INTERPRETER: There is an argument about whether it’s a real disease or just a phenomenon, but we think it’s definitely an addiction.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Dr. Ahn Dong-hyun conducted a three-year study on the question of Internet addiction. His findings helped Korea become one of the first countries to treat it as a psychiatric disorder.

[KOREAN]

DR. AHN DONG-HYUN, VIA INTERPETER: About 90 percent of Korean children use the Internet in their daily life. Of those, about 10 to 15 percent are in the high-risk group.

[KOREAN]

MAN, VIA INTERPRETER: Welcome to the Internet Rescue School. This is a two-week treatment camp.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: In an effort to help kids like Yung-il, the Korean government has funded Internet Rescue Camps throughout the country.

[KOREAN]

WOMAN, VIA INTERPRETER: The reason you’re all here is because you want to decrease the time you spend on the Internet.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: At the recommendation of a teacher, Yung-il’s mother will be leaving him here for two weeks. The day starts with a group counseling session.

[KOREAN]

FEMALE COUNSELOR, VIA INTERPRETER: Because of the Internet, my health has gotten worse and there’s no structure to my life. Who’s checked that box? Everyone has checked that box?

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Most of the kids here say they’ve had to seek medical treatment for conditions that resulted from overusing the computer, like eyestrain and ear complications. Here, they spend lots of time outdoors, engaging in physical activity. It looks a lot like summer camp.

[SOUNDS OF TEENS AT PLAY]

The surprisingly low-tech treatment regimen seems designed mainly to recapture a childhood lost to the computer, but it’s a struggle for kids like Yung-il.

QUESTION: When you go home, will you start using the computer again or will it be different?

[KOREAN]

CHUNG YOUNG-IL, VIA INTERPRETER: Honestly, I don’t expect a lot. Not using the computer for ten days was hard. I just kept thinking about the games or about getting out of the camp and going home.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: To prevent cases like Yung-il’s from happening in the first place, the Korean government is taking aggressive steps to instill healthy computer habits early.

[FEMALE TEACHER SPEAKING IN BACKGROUND]

At Korean elementary schools, kids are taught to go online at around the same time they are taught to read.

FEMALE TEACHER, VIA INTERPRETER: How should we use the Internet in the future? Write about three lines. How many? Three.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: But they’re also taught how to use computers responsibly. It’s required for Korean students, starting in the second grade.

[KOREAN]

FEMALE TEACHER, VIA INTERPRETER: One more time, click!

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: At this school, signs preaching healthy Internet habits line the hallways.

[SOUND OF STUDENTS SINGING NETIQUETTE SONG]

QUESTION: And what’s this one say?

WOMAN: “Slanderous comments on Internet hurts my friends.”

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Another reads, constantly playing computer games shrinks your capacity to think. First-grade instructor Yoo Soo-Gyeong [sp?] says learning Internet etiquette is more important for kids than understanding how the Web works.

QUESTION: When a child is just six years old what’s the most important things they need to learn about the Internet?

[KOREAN]

INSTRUCTOR YOO SOO-GYEONG, VIA INTERPRETER: I think they must learn ethics first, Internet etiquette and manners, and then learn the technical side of it.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: To drive the point home, children learn this Netiquette song preaching good manners and accountability online.

[CHILDREN SINGING IN BACKGROUND]

The chorus: “I am the guardian angel. I will be the first to protect. Though faces are unknown, it’s a warm neighborhood. Precious Internet friend, Netiquette.”

I don’t know. This top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to Net hygiene might not be embraced as readily in a country like America, where we can’t even agree on how to fund our regular health care. But the fact that they’re on the case and that their embrace of the digital has led to a recognized public health crisis might serve as a wakeup call to those of us who assume that our own digital natives can really take care of themselves out there.

[CHILDREN SINGING NETIQUETTE]

For On the Media, I’m Douglas Rushkoff.

[SINGING UP AND UNDER]

BOB GARFIELD: Douglas Rushkoff is the correspondent for Frontline’s Digital Nation, which appears on PBS stations Tuesday night.

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