“Our biggest focus these days is smartphones,” he said, noting that parents could exercise far less control over their children’s use of mobile devices compared to PCs at home.
Kwon said he had experienced extreme cases where children had threatened parents with violence or self-harm when their smartphones were confiscated.
Parental awareness needs to “start early”, said Kwon, who warned against using smartphones to pacify crying babies and said purchasing devices for children should be deferred as long as possible.
Housewife Park Sung-Hee, who attended a recent “smartphone discipline” boot camp organized by Kwon in Seoul, said she was desperate to get her two teenage sons to cut down on their smartphone usage.
“When I check up on them at night, I can see the screens flickering under their sheets,” Park said.
“And it’s not just kids. It’s adults as well. They’re not able to communicate properly or enjoy other things in life,” she added.
In her recent presentation to the 10-year-olds at a school near Seoul, Kim Nam-Hee, a member of Kwon’s civic group, played on the ultra-competitive nature of South Korea’s education system, warning that students obsessed with gadgets may grow up to be “losers.”
Kim highlighted the Waldorf school network in the US which operates a strict no-computer policy and has a branch in California’s Silicon Valley that is a popular choice with senior employees of tech giants such as Yahoo and Google.
“While you become mindless slaves of smartphones and apps, the American elite behind these devices aren’t giving them to their own kids,” Kim warned.
Excessive smartphone usage, she argued, would sap the very creativity that lay behind the technological advances that the smartphone represented.
“If you use smartphones like the iPhone too much without using your own brain, you will eventually lose the ability and brain power to create something as great and innovative as the iPhone,” Kim said.
“Isn’t that ironic?”
Han Doug-Hyun, a psychiatrist who treats patients for “Internet addiction” at Chung-Ang University Hospital in Seoul, said parents often started to identify a problem when their children were around 13 years old.
While sympathetic to parental concerns, Han cautioned against over-stating the seriousness of the problem and of demonising technology.
“I don’t believe humanity will vanish because nobody in the future will be talking to anybody else because of IT devices,” Han told AFP.
“But I do think that the focus of people’s online obsession will keep changing with new gadgets continually replacing the old ones,” he added.