So last week, I watched a documentary on Channel NewsAsia titled “Undercover Asia: Web Junkies”. It was about how the Chinese government ‘treated’ internet addiction amongst its youth by putting them in military-ish boot camps where the kids are disciplined. The documentary also triggered my curiosity: is internet addiction also a problem in Japan?
But first of all, what is internet addiction and why is it categorized as a clinical disease? Experts still cannot agree on whether people are addicted to the internet itself or rather, addicted to the other addictions that the internet fuels; simply put, they still can’t agree whether internet addiction disorder (IAD) should be included as a psychopathology. We start from a 1998 study conducted by Kimberly Young, perhaps one of the earliest attempts of placing internet addiction on the academic agenda. Young proposes that internet addiction should be considered similar to gambling addiction or “pathological gambling”. Young then finds that internet addicts (“dependents”) exhibited similar behavior to that of pathological gamblers: they experienced an array of real-life problems as a result of their addiction to the internet, such as marital, financial, social, and work-related problems. After Young, experts have tried to define IAD by characterizing it with other known addictions, such as alcoholism. Some of the proposed characteristics are inability to control time online, decease in amount of offline social relations, spending excessive money on internet-related fees, etc. (see Suler, 2004) On definitions, Griffiths (2000) believes that
…the only way of determining whether non-chemical (i.e. behavioural) addictions such as Internet addiction are addictive in a non-metaphorical sense is to compare them against clinical criteria for other established drug-ingested addictions.
Basically, what Griffiths is saying is that, in order to be defined as an addiction, IAD patients needs to show similar characteristics as drug addicts.
If you wanted to know more about the models used by experts to define IAD, LaRose et al. (2003) provide a comprehensive elaboration on the two approaches that explain addiction: the pathological approach, like what Griffiths stands for; and the addictive personality. The addictive personality approach is what LaRose et al. believe to be the cause of IAD. Simply put, addiction to internet is triggered by personal traits and to a certain extent, social conditions. Say, if you were depressed, you could see the internet as a means to escape your reality and then become addicted to it.
Of course, there’s still a lot of academic talk I would have to peruse through in order to grasp the topic. But I’m not going to waste your time. Let’s just cut to the chase.
Different Countries, Different Methods
I found out that the Japanese government has just recently shown concern for internet addiction. Based on information from the Ministry of Education (MEXT), around 500,000 teens in Japan are addicted to the internet. However, Japan has yet to consider it as a threat to public security or health. China, on the other, was the first country to diagnose internet addiction as a “clinical disease” and in 2008, declared it as a “top health threat”. Thus, we have two different views on internet addiction and the dangers it poses on society.
First, let’s visit China and see how they treat internet addicts. In the documentary I watched, teenagers were literally dragged from their beds to internet rehabilitation facilities. Parents paid for instructors to coerce their children into going to camp. Some of the facilities are operated privately; some were operated by the Chinese military.
Yep, something is definitely fishy when you got the PLA running rehab camps…
At the camps, the teens were subjected to a semi-military routine. You get up at the break of dawn, do morning exercises, do what you’re told, and get punished if you disobey. Aside from that, teens are also subjected to drugs and other kinds of therapies, even literal shock therapy. The documentary describes the camps as “part prison”. I could also say that the rehab camps are covert military training facilities operating under the pretext of rehab.
Another great documentary related to China addressing IAD is Web Junkie, by Shosh Shlam et al. in 2013. Web Junkie follows three teens in their journey to “cure” IAD. Shlam describes that these teenagers with IAD “stop functioning”. They spend their entire time in front of computers playing MMOs, don’t bathe, forget to eat, don’t sleep; just like Chinese gold-farmers. In the interview above, Shlam believes that there are two fundamental causes for growing IAD in Chinese youth: (1) the one-child policy and (2) the strict and competitive education system. These stressful conditions often become the trigger for teens to become addicted to the internet as a means of escapism. The above documentary also showed teens given medication and all sorts of therapies to “cure” their addiction.
So now, we know how China treats their internet-addicted teens. What about Japan?
As a country with the fourth most largest internet user base, internet addiction is surely a growing problem for the Japanese. To understand the scale of the problem:
For the first time ever, a panel of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has carried out surveys covering nearly 100,000 junior high and senior high school students and found out that 8.1 percent of them were addicted to the Internet. The panel distributed questionnaires to some 140,000 students through junior high and senior high schools in Tokyo, Hokkaido and Japan’s 45 prefectures from October 2012 to March 2013 and about 98,000 students responded. If the 8.1 percent figure is applied to the total number of students in junior and senior high schools, an estimated 518,000 of them are Internet addicts. This number should be taken seriously.
In the surveys of junior and senior high school students, the largest number used personal computers followed by smartphones and ordinary mobile phones in that order. The surveys found that 9 percent of junior high school students and 14.4 percent of senior high school students are online for more than an average of five hours a day on weekdays. The percentage increases to 13.9 percent for junior high school students and 21.2 percent for senior high school students weekends. These figures are astounding. (The Japan Times, 2 September 2013)
Unlike China, Japan has yet to decide whether IAD is a clinical disease or not. The Japan Times called for increased government attention towards internet addiction as a “growing problem”. In 2008, an expected 2.7 million adults were internet addicts. In July 2011, the National Hospital Organization’s Kurihama Medical and Addiction Center in Kanagawa treated over 150 people for internet addiction. Various problems have emerged among Japan’s internet addicts, from Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) to eating and sleeping disorders.
Also unlike China, Japan’s methods in curing IAD does not rely on a “carrot-and-stick” approach; it’s more supportive. In 2013, MEXT began plans for “internet fasting camps”. Now, these “camps” are not like the camps in China. Instead of try to beat IAD out of teens, these internet fasting camps encourage teens to unplug and participate in outdoor activities, just like your normal summer camp. Trained psychotherapists will also monitor the activities at camps and provide counseling.
However, since the internet fasting camp program is still in its infancy, we have yet to see how it operates. I just hope someone makes a documentary about it once the program finally takes off.
So, there’s a stark difference in the methods taken by two differing governments in Asia on the issue of internet addiction. China chooses to take the “hard” way; while Japan opts for a “softer” approach. Of course, we still can’t know for sure whether Japan’s initiative would be able to curb its internet addicts, but hey, we gotta start somewhere.
Now, I wish we, in Indonesia, began discussing about internet addiction… Oops, sorry, the central government has funds to embezzle. They probably won’t give a shit about people and their internetz.
- Young, Kimberly S. (1998). “Internet Addiction: The Emergence of a New Clinical Disorder”. CyberPsychology and Behavior, Vol. 1 No. 3., pp. 237-244
- Suler, John. (2004). “Computer and Cyberspace “Addiction””. International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies. Vol.1, No. 4, pp. 359-362
- Griffiths, Mark. (2000). “Internet Addiction – Time to be Taken Seriously?”. Addiction Research. Vol. 8, No. 5, pp. 413-418
- LaRose, R., Lin, C. A., Eastin, M. S. (2003). “Unregulated Internet Usage: Addiction, Habit, or Deficient Self-Regulation?” Media Psychology. Vol. 5, pp. 225-253