Kim Nam-Hee pulls no punches as she warns a classroom of wide-eyed South Korean 10-year-olds that they stand on the edge of an addiction that will turn them all into “mindless slaves.”
The grim presentation by the social campaigner follows a survey with the loaded title: “Who’s your real family?” It asked the students to compare the hours they spend on their smartphones with the time they spend interacting with relatives.
South Korea’s pride in its high-tech prowess, from ultra-fast broadband speeds to Samsung’s cutting-edge smartphones, is now tinged by anxiety over digital addiction — with even pre-school children showing symptoms of IT obsession.
The country has long promoted Internet technology as a key driver of growth, and the capital Seoul is often referred to as the “most wired” city on the planet.
About 70 percent of South Korea’s 50 million people have smartphones — the highest penetration rate in the world, according to the market research firm eMarket.
But the country’s fixation with everything digital has parents worried about its impact on young — sometimes very young — children. The concern is shared around the world in other advanced economies, but the South Korean government has gone furthest in its response.
“We felt an urgent need to make a sweeping effort to tackle the growing danger of online addiction ... especially given the popularity of smart devices,” the science ministry said when it announced a policy package on June 13.
The initiative, organized in conjunction with the health and education ministries, requires schools to teach special classes on Internet addiction and organize holiday “boot camps” to wean students off their dependency.
According to government data, more than 80 percent of South Koreans aged 12 to 19 owned smartphones in 2012, double the 2011 figure.
Nearly 40 percent of those spent more than three hours a day tweeting, chatting, or playing games — despite attempts by teachers to confiscate all devices at the beginning of the day and return them when classes are over.
An annual government survey estimated that nearly 20 percent of teenagers were “addicted” to smartphones.
Addiction was defined by a number of criteria, including anxiety and depression when separated from a smartphone, a repeated failure to cut back on usage time, and feeling happier using smartphones than being with family or friends.
The problem is not exclusive to teenagers, and the government’s education policy targets primary schools and even pre-schoolers.
“Many young mothers nowadays have their babies play with smartphones for hours to have some peace at home, which I think is really dangerous,” Lee Jung-Hun, a psychiatrist at the Catholic University of Daegu, told AFP.
“The younger you are, the easier it is to become dependent,” he said.
South Korea is painfully aware of the tragic results that can flow from Internet dependence.
Police in 2010 arrested a couple who let their three-month-old starve to death while they obsessively played an online game — about raising a virtual baby.
A woman was arrested last year after giving birth in the toilet of an Internet cafe, where she had been playing for days, and abandoning the new-born.
Former schoolteacher Kwon Jang-Hee, who heads a civic group campaigning against digital addiction, has been criss-crossing the country since 2005 lecturing children and parents on the hazards of a tech-obsessed lifestyle.