BBC News

South Korean clinic treats web addicts

By Lucy Williamson
BBC News, Seoul

media captionInternet gaming has gripped South Korea's youth

In the blue-green hills outside Seoul, Kang Ji-won is spending his afternoon on the badminton court. With his Dad.

The family match might not have the focused excitement of the computer games he is used to, but like all the children here, Ji-won is learning to spend time away from the internet.

It is something South Korea is increasingly concerned about. Internet addiction has long been recognised as a clinical condition here. And a number of high-profile cases of addicts who neglect themselves - or their children - to the point of death, have raised awareness even further.

But the question of how to treat it has proved much trickier.

The family camp in the hills is an attempt to prevent internet addiction, rather than cure it.

image captionKang Ji-won gets angry on the internet

Ji-won does not seem much at risk.

"When I'm not on the internet, I'm really friendly to my family, but when I'm on the internet, I'm angry when they call. I don't know why, but it's bad. I'm trying to fix it, but it's hard."

And harder still for those already addicted. That is why a neurologist at Gongju National Hospital has opened a brain clinic offering a new kind of treatment: brain scans to guide recovery.

Dr Lee Jae-won said: "Some people question why we need to use medical treatment for a habitual disorder."

"But if the condition has got so bad that the brain is not functioning as it should be, medical treatment is very effective."

The brain scans show which areas of the addict's brain are functioning abnormally, and how badly affected they are. Dr Lee uses anti-depressants and therapy to try to correct them.

Teenager Jong-soo is having a dozen electrodes stuck to his head. Jong-soo is not his real name - internet addiction carries a stigma here.

It takes doctors about ten minutes to carefully attach each of the electrodes. One by one, their thin coloured wires trail through his hair to a machine by the bed. On the other side of the glass panel, Dr Lee watches the results come in:

"The results from internet addicts were very similar to patients with ADHD, and also other forms of addiction - in the way the brain functionality had been depressed."


Jong-Soo's parents say he used to play games all night, without sleep or toilet breaks; that he became aggressive and anti-social. So far, he has spent two months at Dr Lee's brain clinic, and he says he is improving.

He says the craving to play games has faded now, though not completely disappeared.

I ask him what's the appeal of online gaming.

"Curiosity," he says, "the fun, the thrill. When I play, I get immersed so much that it's hard to distinguish the cyber world and the real world, sometimes it's just hard to adapt to the real world."

Dr Lee believes there are two types of internet addicts: shy people, who prefer the anonymity of the cyber-world, and those - like, he says, Jong-soo - who are attracted by graphic violence, and the illusion of power.

Like many politicians, Dr Lee wants more regulation of the games themselves. Earlier this year, the South Korean parliament passed a new law to restrict internet use. Nicknamed the 'Cinderella Law', it will ban teenagers from playing online games after midnight.

But game manufacturers argue they're being picked as easy targets - it's cheaper and quicker to restrict them than to tackle the real task of changing Korea's underlying social culture, they say.

Dr Lee agrees it's not just a matter of the games themselves. He also believes Korean parents - and the competitive education system here - are pushing their children too hard; driving them to seek escape online.

Weaning the world's most connected nation away from the world's most exciting online games isn't only a job for politicians or doctors, he says, but for everyone.