Seoul—Some video games sold in South Korea come stamped with a health warning: Obsessive use of online games can harm your health.
That’s one thing I learned today from a long interview with Kang-Tak Oh at South Korea’s National Information Society Agency here. Mr. Oh’s full-time job is to combat cyberaddiction, as director of the government agency’s Media Addiction Prevention Department. I don’t know of any other country that has such a government official (though I hope people will share others they know about in the comments).
South Korea has seen a few sensational incidents of Internet overuse. A couple here was arrested in March for letting their real infant starve to death while they tended to a virtual child online at a local Internet cafe.
I wondered if the government was working with colleges to combat cyberaddiction in the wake of such stories, so I came to this office near City Hall to find out.
Mr. Oh argued that the international media has sensationalized a few extreme cases, painting an unfair picture of the nation’s Netizens. People here are enthusiastic gamers, and the country is one of the most wired in the world. But he estimated that only about 1 percent of the population had a serious addiction to digital media, with maybe 8 percent exhibiting some early symptoms of trouble.
That said, the government takes the problem seriously, Mr. Oh said, and it works to keep things from advancing to an extreme level. “We’re trying to contain the flame of the danger before it will become evident,” he said.
Mr. Oh’s department runs a telephone hotline for Internet addiction with about eight counselors, and it employs a couple of others who can handle walk-in consultations. And the agency operates 16 “Internet rest camps” for children deemed to be playing too much online. At the free three-day program for children and their parents, all cellphones, laptops, video-game players, and other gadgets are confiscated.
College and university students have not been the main concern here so far. Most cases involve teenagers who are not yet in college, said Mr. Oh. “Once they go into university, the problem tends to moderate,” he added.
Still, Mr. Oh said his department was considering setting up a network of colleges and businesses to help study and better address the issue, as part of an expected increase in government support for the program.
Some scholars have debated whether the term “addiction” is accurate or helpful in talking about overuse of computers. Mr. Oh said he’s aware of the debate, and stressed that the government looks at more factors than just time spent online in determining who might need help. Among its criteria: whether the person becomes angry or irritated when kept from an online activity.
Meanwhile video-game makers, including several based in South Korea, have taken voluntary steps, like those warnings on the box.
Chronicle photograph by David McNeill