Smartphone addiction: disease or obsession?
Many foreigners marvel at the Koreans’ engrossment in smartphones. For instance, in a subway car, one would often find more than half of the passengers, especially young ones, are so absorbed in their mobile devices that they sometimes miss their stops.
Smartphone addiction, often called communication addiction disorder, is a serious problem in Korea. The Ministry of Public Administration and Security reported that 8.4 percent of smartphone users in Korea are considered addicts, and 10.1 percent of Koreans overuse social networking services such as Facebook and You Tube. Smartphone addicts are described as wanting to be in constant communication with other people even when there is no absolute need.
Internet addiction is also a serious problem in Korea. The same 2011 study shows that 7.7 percent of Koreans are Internet addicts, with 1.7 percent considered high-risk and needing immediate medical treatment. Although this addiction can afflict everyone, certain members of the population seem more vulnerable than others. For instance, young people seem particularly susceptible — 7.9 percent of children aged 5–9 years and 10.4 percent of adolescents are considered addicts, and 4.1 percent as high-risk addicts. Adolescents from low-income, multicultural and single-parent families, in particular, show a higher addiction rate. Men are also shown to be more susceptible than women.
Policymakers understand the seriousness of these addictions and thus have implemented various treatment and prevention measures. For instance, the Health and Welfare Ministry plans to provide health insurance coverage to smartphone and Internet addicts. It considers these addictions similar to smoking and alcohol addictions, and plans to institute programs providing accessible and affordable treatment for smartphone and Internet addicts.
Korea has also opened a national center against Internet addiction in 2002, the first country in the world to do so. It became the first country to introduce criteria for identifying and classifying Internet addicts. The government also plans to open Internet addiction-rescue schools that would provide medical treatment and counseling for addicts.
Furthermore, the government plans to provide preventive lectures to about 600,000 soldiers. Many of them allegedly use smartphones at barracks at the risk of imprisonment. According to the military, smartphone use at the barracks poses high security risks. The government will also test students in the fourth to seventh grades to determine those that may be affected; students who are diagnosed as addicts will undergo government-sponsored mental treatment. Similarly, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism has also developed a program for diagnosing online gaming addicts, and plans to expand the number of counseling centers for such addicts.
However, not everyone agrees with the government’s general view that smartphone and Internet addiction are legitimate clinical disorders requiring treatment and thus insurance coverage. For instance, academics have yet to prove the view that Internet addiction is indeed mental illnesses needing clinical treatment. The U.S. has been having the same debate and is yet to arrive at a consensus.
Those who support the view that smartphone and Internet addiction are legitimate clinical disorders, argue that the overuse of smartphones and the Internet among addicts is so severe as to cause dissociation, disorientation, time distortion, instant gratification and compulsion. In particular, they contend that the excessive use of computer and mobile gadgets changes an addict’s brain structure, thus impairing his or her short-term memory and decision-making abilities. According to them, those addicted to online-related activities such as sex, gaming, pornography and shopping need close monitoring.
However, opponents of this view say that such addictions are not the problems themselves, but may be symptoms of underlying psychological problems such as depression, anxiety and disorientation, or emotional or interpersonal difficulties such as general stress, loss of a job, breakdown of a marriage, financial debts, and academic failures. They view that these addicts turn to online activities as a coping mechanism.
These opponents claim that since these addictions may be symptoms of underlying mental disorders, including depression, anxiety, impulse control disorders and pathological gambling, they are, therefore, not considered real addictions, in the same way as excessive use of telephones and televisions cannot be classified as telephone and television addictions. According to them, some people turn to their smartphones or the Internet to ease their mental or emotional stress, in the same way as some people turn to food in order to cope with their problems.
In general, smartphone and Internet addicts do not necessarily become alcoholics, compulsive gamblers, chronic overeaters or depressed patients. However, alcoholics, compulsive gamblers, chronic overeaters or depressed patients may resort to smartphones and the Internet in order to avoid their reality.
Dr. Mark D. Griffiths, a psychology professor at Nottingham Trent University in the UK, has identified five criteria for diagnosing Internet and smartphone addicts. First, using smartphones and the Internet dominates the user’s life, feelings and behaviors. Second, mobile and Internet gadgets change the user’s mood. Third, the user’s smartphone and Internet use tends to increase in order to achieve the same effects on mood. Fourth, the user experiences unpleasant feelings or psychological effects when he or she stops using smartphones or the Internet. Finally, the user tends to relapse into earlier patterns of behavior even after years of abstinence or control.
Not all mobile and online activities indicate an addiction; for instance, e-mailing, chatting and web surfing are normal parts of everyday life. Mobile and online gadgets are pro-social, interactive and information-driven devices that may be misused or overused for destructive activities such as gambling, pornography, and online gaming. Now is the time for Koreans to check their, their friends and families’ behaviors for possible smartphone or Internet overuse. Parents in particular should take the necessary steps to ensure their children do not become addicts.
Lee Chang-sup is the executive managing director of The Korea Times. Contact him at email@example.com.