Caught in a web

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Caught in a web

Many of us have been there before. The moment you open your eyes in the morning, you head straight for the computer to check out your e-mail. At work, you check the e-mail every 30 minutes. You nibble on a sandwich at your desk during lunch as you shop online. As the afternoon wears on, it is difficult to resist the temptation of an online poker game for a little break. Finally back home in the evening, nothing can tear you away from the computer. Online chatting, games, mindless surfing going wherever the links take you, watching soap opera episodes that you missed on the tube ?the possibilities are endless, it seems, and so are the hours you spend in cyberland.

While most people break free from the Internet spell as initial fascination wears off, some are not able to do so. Several recent reports on the use of the Internet in Korea draw a troubling picture of Internet addiction here. A report by the Information Culture Center of Korea at the end of last year, which defined Internet addiction as five hours or more of nonwork-related Internet usage a day, found nearly 13 percent of the 5,500 office workers surveyed were online prisoners. The situation was even more serious with youngsters -- more than 48 percent of the 2,100 students surveyed qualified as addicts, mainly for games and chatting.

Another online survey of 557 Internet users found more than 30 percent to be Internet addicts, heavily involved in online communities, games, gambling and adult sites.

With access to the Internet readily available, either through one of the estimated 25,000 "PC rooms" or the 37 percent of households wired as of end of January, the number of Internet junkies are on the rise.

With the majority of people now exploring the Web in the privacy of their homes -- nearly 66 percent as of last year, according to Internet Metrix, an Internet strategic consulting group -- even young children and housewives are susceptible to developing the dependency.

Chang Ye-ji, a 13-year-old student, posted a help message at the site of the Korea University Internet Addiction Online Center, a group which provides both online and offline counseling addicts. She says that she started wandering in cyberspace at 11 years old at home, and by the time she was 12, she had become hooked on online chatting. Her grades are falling and she would really like to stop. "The Internet is a frightening creature," she writes.

Others talk about the downward spiral as the Internet begins to rule their every minute. A middle school student writes about spending 14 hours a day lost in the World Wide Web, getting less than two hours of sleep. Preferring to chat online, he seldom leaves home other than to go to school. A housewife in her early 40s suspects that her husband is having an offline affair with an online amour.

What makes it difficult for some people to simply walk away from the computer at the end of the day? There are certain character traits that make a person more vulnerable to pathological Internet use, according to Internet addiction specialists. People with prior episodes of depression, those who suffer from anxiety or low self-esteem make prime candidates for the online obsession.

"Pathological Internet use is a behavioral addiction involving impulse-control problems, like pathological gambling or shopping," said Kim Hyun-soo, a psychiatrist who works extensively with out-of-control Internet users.

Ironically, Web surfers who spend hours on the Net for work are not addicts. The absolute number of hours spent on the Internet is not the sole criterion for determining addiction. What is important is preoccupation with the Net. "You have an Internet addiction if you are compulsively thinking about it, unable to control yourself, and if your daily routine and lifestyle is disrupted," said Dr. Kim.

Teenage boys are at high risk for developing the cyber syndrome, according to Dr. Kim. "They are at ease with the Web, they enjoy games, are inclined to form online communities and they are at that age when there is a lot of fantasizing going on," he said.

Internet also exacerbates other social problems. Newspapers have reported about Internet suicide pacts, and note the increasing numbers of spouses suing for divorce because of their partners' addition to the Net. Violent incidents involving gamers who act out their online role-playing games are not uncommon.

Experts believe that Internet addiction in Korea is more prevalent than in many other countries, with some estimating that as many as 40 percent of all Internet users may be suffering from some degree of dependence. Some believe that there is a cultural issue involved here. The general inclination in Korea to move as fast as possible makes the society very receptive to the Internet, which is the "information super highway," after all.

That the local online gaming industry is one of the most developed in the world also plays a large role in propagating game addiction, the most prevalent form of Internet enslavement here.

As with any form of addiction, prevention is better than a cure. "When children are being introduced to the computers for the first time, they should not be introduced to it as a game machine," said Mr. Kim.

Other preventive measures suggested by the Cyber Addiction Information Center, launched by the government in November 2000 in response to the growing problem, include limiting computer time, using the computer in public space and deleting unnecessary game files that may actually cause more stress. It is also important to look for alternatives to occupy your time, engage in physical activity, and form interpersonal relationships in the real world. Even if you decide to go to a PC room, bring along a friend rather than going alone.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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