• Dean Cornish plays cards with the teenagers at South Korea's 'Dream Village' for internet addicts. (SBS Dateline)
South Korea is so addicted to the internet, there are even rehab centres for teenagers to ‘get clean’. But when Dean Cornish visited one for Dateline, it made him think about the amount of time he spends online.
By
8 Apr 2016 - 5:01 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2016 - 5:08 PM

I’m in the freezing snowy mountains near Muju, around two hours South of Seoul – it’s about as far from the bustling bright lights and technology of the capital that I can get.

But the young guys at South Korea’s 'Internet Dream Village' are here because they spend most of their waking hours online.

There are no screens at the Dream Village. Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (or MMORPGs for short!) are replaced with guitar lessons, lego, books and board games.

Yes, I find the allure of MMORPGs almost as difficult to fathom as their acronym. I’ll be in a minority for the next month.

My single point of solidarity will be that I too, will be required to be without technological devices during my time filming at the Dream Village for Dateline.

Mobile phones and tablets are locked securely in the office. And I realise how much I reach for my pocket.

I swear I can feel the vibrations of a text or Facebook notification, although I know my phone is nowhere near me. These phantom feelings will continue - and I’m not even an internet addict, am I?

Soo In is addicted to smartphone games - and has become a high-ranking member of his guild in the game Seven Knights. It’s not just gaming for him - it’s his entire social interaction.

His difficulty making friends offline is easy to see, as he sits apart from the 30 other boys at the Dream Village. He’s alone, and not sure where to start when speaking face-to-face.

Unlike drug or alcohol withdrawal, the symptoms aren’t immediate. During his time at the Dream Village, Soo In describes the increasing severity of his need for the game.

But he’s desperate too for his mum’s cooking and, presumably, to be away from the collective jonesing of other MMORPG devotees.

An over-stimulated brain with finely honed skills that appear to be useless in the ‘real world’.

The kids here are aged between 12 and 18. While Soo In is withdrawn, others are polite, funny and interested in sharing their experience.

I’m told the trick is to teach these teenage boys self-control when they eventually return to life online. If that’s not an impossible quest, it’s definitely a delicate balance.

The Intern Diaries: Korea’s Internet Addicts
Dean Cornish was fascinated by South Korea’s internet addicts from the moment he first heard about the phenomenon.

Soo In’s reaction is pretty typical, according to Dr Shim - the head of the Dream Village.

Dr Shim has an easy manner - firm but fair - and likes to make sure the kids here engage in as much physical exercise as possible.

He believes his program opens up areas of development that aren’t allowed to flourish when online activity dominates the adolescent brain.

Mentors stay with the boys 24/7 - even sharing a communal sleeping area. Initially it seems like counselling overkill, but I soon realise that the night-time hours are the most lonely and strange for those who are used to being online all the time.

So many of us now check our phones before we go to sleep, but many of the teenagers here are worried about getting through the night without a smartphone - especially Chan Woo.

He’s 15, but seems younger. He dominates the board games and playing cards in the recreational area of the Dream Village.

Everything turns quickly to intense competition and Chan Woo dances a fine line between bravado and frustration. When we speak, he explains that this is exactly what’s got him in trouble with online games.

His regimen is solid, with around eight hours per day dedicated to a number of different smartphone and PC games. When he loses, he tells me he becomes violent.

I leave wondering. Without 24/7 mentors, board games, or even access to the great outdoors,  and with a smartphone, PC gaming room or console generally more accessible, how will they go in the outside world?

Also, many of these young guys are bona fide computer geniuses - should they be expected to forego time in front of screens if this is realistically the way to lucrative and interesting careers as coders, programmers, or even professional MMORPG players?

I get my iPhone back, and realise that my phantom notifications were in vain. I actually missed out on very little while offline.

The kids leave - looking better-adjusted - to bravely face the digital world they’ve been pining for.

See the full story, Korea's Internet Addicts:

Korea’s Internet Addicts
Some teens in South Korea are so addicted to gaming, they can no longer distinguish what’s real and what’s not. Dateline follows them as they go through intense month-long digital rehab.