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Caught in the Web

Although still deemed as insufficiently documented to be included in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder Fifth Edition (DSM-5-TR), problematic or pathological internet use constitutes a global - and growing - problem which especially affects young people. As smart phone proliferate and social media becomes every more ubiquitous, psychiatrists are noticing the detrimental effects of excessive amounts of time spent online.

Scientists in South Korea, the home of Samsung and one of the most 'connected' countries on the planet, recognised the phenomenon early on, conducting an extensive study in 2011 among 3 to 30 year olds. The data gathered by the National Information Society Agency (NIA) concluded that there were as many as 160,000 Korean children aged between 5 and 9 and 125,000 aged between 10 and 19 who are dependent on computers, smartphones and tablets.

Reacting to these disturbing findings, the Korean government enacted the so-called Youth Protection Revision Act (commonly known as the 'Cinderella Act') in 2011 which banned children under 16 years of age from playing video games between midnight and 6pm. It also established almost 100 counselling and rehabilitation centres around the country and instituted preventative education programmes in schools which include mandatory stays at 'detox' boot camps for the worst affected.

In both public and private clinics across Korea, 'digital detox' programmes have sprung up that combine antidepressants with activities in nature, interpersonal communication and physical exercise. Despite the government's best efforts, however, the problem continues to grow. According to Dr Lee Jae-Won, a neuroscientist ad Gangnam Eulji Hospital in Seoul, the main driving force is the huge appeal of e-sports, accounting for around 90% of internet additions. E-sports are now a billion dollar industry in Korea, having seen a huge rise during the covid pandemic.

Professional teams of e-sports players are sponsored by brands like Samsung and SK Telecom, the national telecoms operator. E-sports have borrowed all the trappings of actual, physical sports and are considered athletic competitions, overseen by the Korea e-Sports Association (KeSPA), a government body founded in 2000 by the Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism. The most popular disciplines include 'League of Legends', 'Counter Strike: Global Offensive' and 'Data 2'.

Lorenzo Maccotta travelled to South Korea where he met children who have been affected by 'internet addiction' and other young people who spend much of their free time using digital devices in their daily lives.
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