By Phil Barnes
Copy edited and produced by Laura Straub
Dr. Han Doug-hyun doesn’t treat his patients for broken bones, fevers, or flus. He doesn’t see them for alcohol or substance abuse, either. No, Dr. Han’s specialty is a unique, yet equally detrimental breed of addiction -- an addiction to the internet.
Each week, over 70 online game addicts walk through the doors of the On-line Game Clinic at Seoul’s Chung-ang University in search of Dr. Han’s office. Once inside, patients embark on a journey of self-discovery, climbing out of depression and unplugging themselves from a virtual reality.
An Online Escape
“Online gaming offers a chance to escape from the real world,” says Han. “Korean social structure is very tight. They have no time except for study and work. That’s why online society is so attractive and addicting to them.”
For many Koreans, “the real world” starts as early as elementary school. Students in Karisa Austin’s fifth grade class go to school from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Austin teaches in Seoul at Korea Poly Institute, which emphasizes intensive English in addition to math, science, and phonics.
|South Koreans use the internet and gaming as an escape.|
Interestingly, Austin’s internet addiction awareness comes from her students’ stories rather than the South Korean media. Hard facts and statistics surrounding the country’s online gaming epidemic are scarce, yet Austin hears about it all the time.
“They have places here called PC rooms where people can go to use computers. I've heard stories about people dying in them because they didn't leave for food or drink,” says Austin. “My students have talked about people they knew who died in one. Also, I've talked to many male adults who say that when they have free time they get together with their friends and play games in the PC rooms.”
However, Austin doesn’t believe that she personally knows any internet addicts. For her students, demanding workloads make it difficult to find time for computer games. And even for the exceptions (one of her students plays 10 hours a day on weekends), she doesn’t know if they’re actually addicted.
Although Dr. Han is the director of an online game clinic, he doesn’t have the answer.
“The range of people classified as having a gaming addiction is very wide, from 3.5 percent to 30 percent of the South Korean population. But, how can that be? It’s because the criteria of internet addiction are not defined yet, so it’s impossible to understand at this point,” says Dr. Han.
But there are steps in determining whether or not one of Han’s potential patients is in need of help. He bases his criteria on three points: tolerance, craving, and gaming patterns in daily life.
“Parents sometimes try to take their kids in here because they are concerned that they are playing video games too much,” says Han. “But game addiction is very different than a hobby. I’m a gamer myself – I love to play Starcraft a lot—but that doesn’t make me an addict.”
If the patient does show signs of game “addiction” (such as losing sleep, social aptitude, and/or appetite) Han runs an MRI scan to note any brain irregularities.
|Machine used to conduct MRI tests|
Patients are then prescribed stimulants or antidepressants before enrolling in individual psychotherapy or group therapy sessions. Dr. Han sees each one of his 200 patients every other week.
“We check up on our patients constantly,” says Han. “See, here, we treat online addiction just like alcohol or drug abuse.”
And, as with any alcoholic or drug user, society’s stigmas for game addicts are just as harmful.
“One time, CNN New York asked me if they could interview just one of my patients. All of them denied. It’s because of the stigma and the stereotypes. No one wants to be known as an online addict, because it’s a sign of failure,” says Dr. Han. “I really love my country, but the society has a lot of pressures.”
Han believes these pressures are fueling a recent spike in youth suicide cases. And, according to Austin, the burden begins in the classroom.
“I know students have killed themselves when they did not get the test score that they hoped to get. They didn’t want to face disappointment from their parents,” she says. “The parents push their students really hard when it comes to their studies. Some parents use physical abuse to get their kids to do well in school.”
“However, people also kill themselves for being fired from a job or from too much ridicule from others. Koreans are very honest people and they tell each other exactly what they think. They also care a lot about what people think of them. So if something happens that is going to make them look bad, their usual answer is to kill themselves. It is really sad, but true.”
The World Health Organization lists South Korea as number two on the scale of countries with the most annual suicides. Reporter for the Korea Herald, Ji-sook Bae, has done extensive research in order to root out the reason for the climbing suicide rate.
“The government sees that the growing number of people diagnosed with depression to be the main reason,” Bae says. “People link stress with depression. If tough school/work schedules could cause depression, suicide and the hectic schedules may well be associated.”
Bae notes that the average Korean worker spends 2,243 hours in labor per year while the average worker in the U.S. spends around 1,400 hours.
Online gaming serves as an avenue for stress relief, and increased stress due to a demanding lifestyle may be the reason behind the growing number of admittances into Han’s clinic.
Dr. Han believes that South Korea’s internet rapidity is the remaining factor behind a growing online gaming addiction. When compared to the United States, South Korea’s internet speed is technically five years ahead. However, Han isn’t sure if more people in the U.S. will become addicted to the internet as technology advances and speeds increase.
“A lot has to do with speed” he says. “But more of it has to do with society.”