Children laughing and playing together outdoors have long become a memory of more innocent times. Today's children sit down in dark, stuffy Internet cafes or lock themselves in their rooms to play computer games.
Look at the daily routine of 13-year-old Young-min. The moment school is over, the sixth-grader hurried off to English and high-school level math classes. His parents were happy because their son did well at school.
Then the boy started stealing from his mother's purse and asked his parents for more saying he needed to buy books. But Young-min used the money to buy game items. When they found out, his parents forbad him to use the computer -- and now Young-min refuses to talk to them. He only communicates with faceless online friends. When his father finally had enough and administered a spanking, the boy fought back with his fists.
Or take Min-su. One fine day, the 17-year-old suddenly declared he would not go to school any more. He claimed he didn't need to study and go to college when he could live a comfortable life by just being good online game player. His mother, to Minsu, was a nag and an obstacle in his life. Instead of spending the money his parents had saved for his education, he suggested, they should spend it on setting up an Internet café.
"I can play games all day even if my grades are bad. I don't have to serve in the army if I quit school and I can easily make money by being a good game player. Why should I have to study hard?" Offline work seemed just not worth it.
These may sound like extreme cases, but they illustrate the reality of game addiction among many children. The compulsion often comes accompanied with an inability to function in the real world ? in meatspace, as nerds call it ? to the point of fully fledged language disabilities and an incapacity to control their anger that often results in violence. Medical centers see more and more children suffering from this kind of alienation. The Korea Agency for Digital Opportunity and Promotion estimates that three out of 10 teenagers show symptoms of computer game addiction. The biggest problem with game addiction is that it is as hard to cure like addiction to drugs or gambling. Worse, says Kim Jin-mi, the head of a mental health clinic, it's "impossible."
Children become addicted to games more easily because they begin to play in their preschool years, when they are barely capable of judging good and bad. According to a survey by the Ministry of Information and Communication and the National Internet Development Agency early this month, half the children between three and five (870,000) use the Internet, 93 percent of them to play games and for fun. The average child starts to use the Internet at 3.2 years of age.
Prof. Ahn Dong-hyeon of Hanyang University recommends drastic measures. "If children start playing games from a very young age they easily become addicted, and in a situation where there is no guideline for a sound and healthy online game culture, it's best not to let them use the computer at all."
The cycle is often the same: children who have no friends to play with become addicted to online games and drop out of school, Others become violent because of their game addiction and lose their friends that way. They are not just spending too much time in front of the computer: they are cutting themselves off from the rest of the world.
Crime can be a logical next step. Kim Hyeon-su, the head of a mental hospital, says such children regard computer games as their life, not simply as a hobby. They can become incapable of discriminating between reality and virtual reality, and thus tend to be more violent and, in the end, more likely to commit crimes.
Experts say the cause is often in the family. Hypnohealer Net president Park Se-ni says children who are addicted to games often think their parents do not love them. "Parents must try to spend more time with their kids and give them more attention," he urges.