Korea's Internet Addiction: Fate of the World?

Fact: over half the world’s population lives in cities. Fact: all developed cities like New York, Tokyo, Singapore and London, are in a race to become “wired”.  Fact: the most wired city in the world is Seoul, Korea with 97% broadband penetration. Ergo if we want to imagine life in a digital city, we should look for inspiration and lessons to Seoul. In fact, journalists, researchers and public officials have done exactly that. What they’ve discovered is a country which is one of the top investors in technology in the world, but whose population has become infested with “internet addiction”. Does this mean our children and even us adults are vulnerable to such a predicament over the next twenty years?

The Korean government began investing in broadband networks as far back as 1994 when Americans were just coming to experience the world of the Web. Today, they are aggressively upgrading their network infrastructure, potentially making their Internet speeds 200 times faster than that of the US. The advantages of high-speed bandwidth are innumerable: easier collaboration, more efficient governments, real-time city management, virtual education and higher productivity. Yet it also has a dark side: a deep addiction to online worlds. Last year, a young Korean couple was so busy tending to its virtual baby that it let its real baby starve to death.

Online worlds are extremely popular in Korea. Cyworld, the equivalent of Facebook in Korea (but five years older), has almost half of Korea’s population as members. After school, kids often frequent “PC Bangs,” about 25000 Internet cafes sprinkled across the country, where clients can play games for hours on end without interruption. According to the Korean government, about two million citizens are addicted to the Internet to the extent that it interferes with their ability to function as normal participants in society. The government is taking several steps to wean citizens off the Internet, including setting up addiction help centers.

The question for the rest of us watching Korea is: does such a fate await us? Why did Koreans in a span of almost twenty years become so addicted to online worlds and games? Some have theorized that the reason lies in the competitive and stressful nature of life in Korea: work hours are long and children are under incredible pressure from their parents to perform well. Indeed, depression and the need to escape definitely contribute to Internet addiction. It is also a fact that video games are sometimes consciously programmed to be addictive, much like slot machines in casinos. Then again it might be the proliferation of Internet cafes, which were not regulated by law to limit access to children or the number of hours someone can play games in the premises. Most likely, a number of factors led to the dramatic and unceasing rise of Internet addiction in Korea.

The lesson from Korea’s experience and current anxiety is that seemingly innocuous networking sites like Cyworld, coupled with high speed connectivity over the web and cell phones, can spawn a generation that is constantly seeking entertainment and communication with peers in ways that are detrimental to their overall social health. Instead of looking at Korea as the ultimate fate we will face as digital nations, we should think strategically to avoid falling into the same traps.

Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.

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