A nation of cyber-addicts
“At first I felt really uncomfortable, but then I began to experience a sense of freedom that I hadn’t had in a long time,” said Ryu, an office worker in Seoul.
That feeling didn’t last long. He soon began to feel edgy. “I kept wondering if I’d missed any important calls or text messages,” he said. “And because of the speed dial, I hadn’t memorized my girlfriend’s phone number.”
Ryu said that day made him realize how dependent he’d become on mobile technology. “I’ve been using mobile phones for less than a decade, but now I wonder how I survived before.”
Park Jin-won, another Seoulite, said he is completely hooked on the digital world and surrounds himself with the latest technology. He uses his iPod, connected to his Nike footwear, to monitor how many calories he burns a day, and his mobile phone is connected to the Internet and television broadcasts.
“I watch television on my DMB phone while I’m commuting to and from work,” Park said. He also has a Sony PSP portal game device and a Nintendo DS. “I hardly ever purchase CDs, and I download the latest movies from various P2P [peer-to-peer] sites such as Fileguri or Diyhard. Why pay for movies when you can download for free?”
Ryu and Park are typical of people living in a nation that is hot-wired to the latest developments in technology.
You can see people playing video games on their PSP, Nintendo DS or mobile phone on the subway, on buses, at concert halls and in movie theaters. You could even see kids fiddling with portable video games instead of cheering for the national team in front of City Hall during last year’s World Cup.
In the streets urban dwellers listen to music through their MP3 players or mobile phones. Walkmans and CD players are virtually extinct.
A study by Universal McCann in September suggests that Korea is not alone in its dependency on the digital world. The research surveyed 10,000 people about mobile phones. The respondents came from all over the world: France and Germany to Mexico and Brazil, plus Korea.
The results showed that Korea was the eighth largest market for mobile phones, trailing the United Kingdom at 28.6 million individual users. The United States led the market with 158.3 million, China came second with 126 million, and Japan was third with 64.7 million.
Korea’s portable media player ownership came close to 80 percent, ranking 10th in the world, and Korea ranked top in the world for using mobile phones for more that just making calls.
In addition, copying legal CDs to portal devices accounted for 38 percent of content used for portable devices. P2P illegal downloads came in second with 36 percent. Paid-for downloads only took up 18 percent.
Although Korea led in the paid-for digital music category, it ranked among the top 10 countries in downloading music through P2P services.
But such a growing demand for mobile devices and Internet access doesn’t always translate positively.
Lee Hae-gyoung, a professor at Korea Cyber University, said approximately 20 percent of the Korean population using mobile phone displays symptoms of addiction. Last year Lee researched this phenomenon for the Korea Agency Digital Opportunity and Promotion.
The professor said mobile addiction is much worse than Internet addiction. “Not long ago Internet access was fixed to location, but today you access the Internet and video games while moving around,” Lee said.
“This makes people more vulnerable to addiction.”
The largest group addicted to mobile technology is teenagers, especially those in middle school. “In our research we have found that middle school students were mostly addicted to text messaging,” Lee said. Part of the reason, according to Lee, is that they are not as mature as adults and their ability to make judgements is less focused, so they tend to send superfluous text messages. Middle school students also tend to have more free time that high school students. The latter group is too busy cramming for college entrance exams.
Lee also claimed that mobile addiction is just as dangerous as substance addiction like alcohol. “People addicted to mobile devices have trouble living a normal life. Students, who should be learning and studying, can’t perform what they are meant to do at that age,” Lee said.
The other issue, of course, is expense. Phone bills add up and create serious economic problems, Lee said.
Koh Young-sam, a team leader for a media addiction countering team at the Korea Agency Digital Opportunity and Promotion, said via e-mail that there are twice as many teenagers than adults addicted to non-portable Internet access. That’s because surfing the Internet is the most popular leisure time activity for people aged 16 to 19, Koh said. Boys tend to play online games, while girls get addicted to chatting or organizing Web sites for social networking.
In some of the more serious cases of addiction, minors resort to crime, such as robbery to pay for PC room sessions or game items. There are also cases of fraud and physical violence. Earlier this month, authorities in Suwon, Gyeonggi, arrested four teenagers on suspicion of threatening a 51-year-old woman with a weapon after breaking into her home and stealing items worth 480,000 won. Among the stolen items were 80,000 won in cash and a mobile phone. The teenagers later called the woman’s home three times asking for more money. If she did not comply, they allegedly threatened to kill her. Their overall haul was 2 million won.
Apparently they needed the cash to pay for the entry fee to a game competition that would give them the chance to become professional gamers.
In another case, a group of elementary students ran up bills on their neighbors’ phone account for some game items by tapping into phone lines, according to a former employee of a Korean online game company, who worked on receiving complaints from game users.
Lee said research into mobile addiction is relatively new and there are no specific solutions so far. One proposal involves raising the fees for text messaging services.
“The fees are really cheap, so kids can send unlimited text messages,” Lee said.
However, Lee said will power is also a vital component in tackling the problem. “The solution we currently have for those addicted to mobile devices and the Internet is to break the habit with self-determination.”
Fortunately, the number of people addicted to non-portable Internet access is decreasing, thanks to aggressive government efforts. Koh at the Korea Agency Digital Opportunity and Promotion said in 2005 that Internet addiction rates for the overall population stood at 12.6 percent. This figure dropped to 9.2 percent in 2006. This year’s figures are yet to be released.
“No other country is trying to prevent Internet addiction as aggressively as Korea,” Koh said.
The Korea Agency Digital Opportunity and Promotion has its own prevention center where free counseling is available. All you need do is call (02) 1599-0075. Counseling hours are from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. The agency also provides a self-examination kit on its Web site at www.kado.or.kr
By Lee Ho-jeong Staff Writer [firstname.lastname@example.org]