Treating addicted online gamers is a challenge

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Treating addicted online gamers is a challenge

GONGJU - Choi Hyun-min loses all track of time when he sits down to play computer games, but the sessions usually last at least 10 hours.

Choi (not his real name) is among hundreds of thousands officially considered to be Internet addicts in Korea, one of the world’s most wired nations. Now, the 16-year-old student is undergoing therapy at the Save Brain Clinic, which opened in early May and styles itself as the country’s first specialist clinic for such addicts.

“Internet addiction is not mere delinquency,” said Lee Jaewon, who heads the clinic at Gongju National Hospital, a psychiatric institution 120 kilometers (74 miles) south of Seoul.

“It is a serious issue and parents need to feel less embarrassed and bring children to hospitals for treatment before it’s too late.” The clinic offers a five-week treatment program including group sessions, art therapy, medicine and processes known as neurofeedback and transcranial magnetic stimulation.

Many parents have made inquiries. But only three people, including Choi, began the five-week course, which intends to focus on adolescents but is also open to adults. Lee said parents have difficulty admitting their children have problems and feel embarrassed to bring them to a mental hospital.

Although Internet addiction is not accepted as a mental disorder, he said, the problem is already deep-rooted in Korean society. There have been several fatal incidents. Last year a mother was arrested for killing her 3-year-old son while she was tired from Internet game-playing. A 15-year-old boy committed suicide after killing his mother for scolding him over excessive playing of computer games. In an especially tragic case, a 41-year-old man was sentenced to two years in prison after he and his wife left their baby daughter to die at home of malnutrition while they were in Internet cafes. They were raising a “virtual child” in an online game. Figures from the family ministry estimate there are 2 million Internet addicts. Among them, 877,000 are aged between 9 and 19. Despite strong opposition from the computer games industry, the National Assembly passed a bill forcing online game companies to block users under 16 from playing between midnight and 6 a.m. It goes into force this November. While the government ponders policies to prevent Internet addiction, Lee said his clinic will focus on treatment as early as possible.

“It will be too late if we only start treatment after Internet addiction has been acknowledged as a mental disease,” he said.

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