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“I’ve been practicing a lot and I feel pretty confident today,” Young-Soo says. “I think I’ll win this game.”
StarCraft is a video game. And Young-Soo’s special talent? Defending a space colony from psychic alien invaders in a distant sector of the galaxy. Two national cable channels broadcast these tournaments live, in prime time.
The crowd cheers as Young-Soo does his best to fend off his opponent’s assaults. But the attack is relentless.
“He’s running out of time. Jin Young-Soo’s in trouble!” the announcer shouts. “He’s getting creamed.”
Finally, the invaders overtake him. “K.O.! K.O.!” the announcer yells.
It’s a crushing defeat for Young-Soo, but an unforgettable night for reporter Douglas Rushkoff. As a chronicler of the digital world for over a decade, Rushkoff had heard many stories about South Korea – the country everyone calls the most wired place on Earth. He’d come here to see for himself how Korea’s digital revolution is changing this place and its people.
At Korea’s famous internet cafés, also called PC Bangs, amateur gamers test their mettle. There are thousands of PC Bangs here, seemingly on every corner. A whole generation of kids seems to be down in these smoky basements – glued to StarCraft and other games. It was late as Rushkoff arrived at one of these cafes, but no one seemed ready to leave.
“Do you ever stay over night, all night?” Rushkoff asks a few of the gamers.
“Sometimes,” they say. “We like this better than studying.”
But what these kids consider simple fun has stirred controversy. In the last few years, a few people died in PC Bangs after marathon gaming sessions. And now everyone’s talking about whether Korean youth spend too much time online.
“We read the newspaper about Korea,” Rushkoff says. “They say, ‘Gaming is a problem now.’ That people are addicted to the games, addicted to the Internet. And they’re not getting their studies done … Do you feel this is a problem for you?”
“We don’t play like we’re addicted, just once in awhile for fun,” the boys say. “But there are many who are addicted. But they don’t play at PC Bangs. They play at home. Yes, addicted play at home.”
“There’s an argument about whether it’s a real disease or just a phenomenon,” says psychiatrist Dr. Ahn Dong-Hyun, “but we think it’s definitely an addiction.”
The Korean government commissioned Dr. Dong-Hyun to conduct a three-year study on the growing question of Internet addiction. His findings helped Korea become one of the only countries to treat it as a psychiatric disorder.
“About ninety percent of Korean children use the Internet in their daily life,” Dr. Dong-Hyun says. “Of those, about 10-15% are in the high-risk group. So, about 800,000 or more are at risk.”
Fifteen-year-old Chung Young-Il is among the first group of kids in Korea to be diagnosed with an addiction to the Internet.
“It’s pretty extreme,” he says. “I’d say I play 7 or 8 hours a day during the week. Then, on weekends, I stay up all night on the computer.”
Young-Il lives with his mother in a cramped apartment outside of Seoul. His parents divorced when he was 5. Over the last semester, his rank in school has dropped from the top to the bottom third in his class, and he’s begun to hear ringing in his ears.
His mother thinks the computer is doing more harm than good.
“When Young-Il starts a game, he doesn't know when to stop and he just plays for hours,” she says. “I’m not sure, but I think he mostly uses the computer to play some type of fighting game. I wish those games didn't exist. That inability to communicate with his own mother makes me so sad. I wish I could learn to play the games myself so I could spend more time with Young-Il, but I can't understand them.”
Concerned about Young-Il's online obsession, last year his mother sent him to a psychiatrist. But nothing has really changed.
“There's no one home when Young-Il gets back after school,” his mother says. “So the only thing there is to do is play computer games. I'm thinking if I can't control him right now, I may lose my son. (I would say) this is an addiction. Only an addict would act this way.”
In response to the rising number of kids like Young-Il, the government is funding free Internet addiction treatment centers around the country, like the Internet Rescue School. On the recommendation of a teacher, Young-Il's mother will be leaving him here for two weeks.
“The reason you are all here,” a counselor says, “is because you want to decrease the time you spend on the Internet.”
Most of the kids here say they’ve had to seek medical treatment for health problems that result from overuse of the computer, like eye strain and ear complications.
The therapy group confiscates cell phones and laptops, and monitors the kids’ every move.
For Rushkoff, it is surprising that the digital detox is decidedly low-tech. The kids’ treatment seemed designed mainly to recapture a childhood lost to the computer.
“Over half the kids here are from broken families. So they haven’t gotten a lot of support at home,” a counselor says. “There are lots of kids with feelings of loneliness and depression.”
But it may be tough for Young-Il and the other campers to stay unplugged once they leave here.
Ten years ago, when the Korean government launched its high tech revolution, it was easy to wire up this dense, urban nation so that broadband reached nearly everyone, everywhere.
But it’s proving more difficult to undo the problems that wiring Korea created. Young people in particular have attached themselves to technology with abandon. For many of them, school is a pressure cooker, lasting late into the evening. The online world is their only escape.
Towards the end of the two-week camp, Rushkoff asks Young-Il if he is optimistic about his future.
“When you go home, will you start using the computer again, or will it be different?” Rushkoff asks.
“I don’t expect a lot,” Young-Il says. “Not using the computer for 10 days was hard. I just kept thinking about the games or about getting out of the camp and going home.”
Before heading home, Rushkoff visits an elementary school in Seoul. It’s in classrooms like theirs that Korea is trying to start fresh with a new generation. As Rushkoff watches, he wonders what we have left to offer these kids, from a world they’ve clearly left behind.
“As you watch these children do you look at them as different from children of the past?” Rushkoff asks the school’s principal.
“They’re quick to adapt, to change, but they lack stability,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like I'm living too far into the past. The kids now are moving too far ahead of us.”