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.
This stadium in Seoul is dedicated to massive multi-player online role playing games.
CONTESTANT (Translation): Your eyes will be amused, your heart will be excited!
The top level players look like pop stars. Girls adore them and men envy them. This is the most wired country on earth, with the world's fastest data speeds. E-Sports are a national obsession.
CONTESTANT (Translation): Damage, damage, damage!
Even ordinary gamers will play marathon sessions.
CROWD MEMBER (Translation): One day I played League of Legends so much, I couldn’t stop to go to the toilet. And I didn’t eat for a whole day.
INTERVIEWER: Are you addicted?
CROWD MEMBER: Yes, I think so.
Here people are locked into smartphones and 24-hour gaming cafes are almost as common as convenience stores. It's no wonder one in ten Korean teenagers are now addicted to the internet.
MAN: I can't stop. I can't help it. I can't help myself.
Internet addicts can end up confusing the digital world with reality which is creating huge problems here. A recent spike in computer game related crime and violence has shocked the nation and the world.
NEWS READER: In South Korea today, a mother and father are accused of starving their newborn daughter to death all while spending endless hours playing online Games.
NEWS READER (Translation): A computer game addict has had a violent outburst. He stabbed people, killing one and injuring seven others. He was a 19-year-old student.
The government's push for digital supremacy has landed them with a problem. To try and solve it they have set up a unique rehab centre and I'm on my way to meet some young addicts going through digital detox and find out more about this modern crisis.
We arrive in Muju. After Seoul, for me, the quiet is calming and beautiful. But for these boys, it's their idea of hell. I'm about two hours outside of Seoul now at the national centre for youth addiction treatment. Here teenagers come for a month at a time and this place tries to show them there's life away from the screens. All devices are confiscated on arrival. The boys will go from full-time gaming to zero screen time.
CHAE CHAN WOO (Translation): When I first came here, there were strange faces, so I had to ask myself, “How am I going to stay here for 27 days?”
Hearing some of the addiction stories, you start to understand why the government feels prompted to start a school like this.
CHOI KYUNG SEO (Translation): I play for 20 hours per day. I know it’s a lot. My favourite game is Grand Theft Auto 5. Because I can drive cars and shoot guns which I can’t do in reality.
TEACHER (Translation): How about on school days? How many hours?
CHOI KYUNG SEO (Translation): 10 TO 14 hours.
BOY (Translation): You play until 4am? How is it even possible?
BOY 2 (Translation): I play games for a long time. So no matter what I do, I feel depressed and lazy.
Here, the kids are able to share their gaming stories and for many, they have never said any of this out loud before.
CHAE CHAN WOO (Translation): When I play games on the smartphone or the computer, if I lose I get angry and punch and hit things.
In Korean, this centre is known as the internet Dream Village. The South Korean Government gave it that name to avoid scaring off teenagers with labels like 'rehab'.
TEACHER (Translation): I’ll pass you the paper and you can write down the dreams that you most want to make come true.
You hear a lot of talk of dreams here. The take home message is if you control your time online, you can become whatever you want to be.
CHAE CHAN WOO (Translation): What I really want to do is…I sincerely want to teach others. So I want to be a teacher. That is my dream.
It's not just hours online that determine an addiction. Diagnosis comes from how a person behaves when they're online and how they feel when they're not. Centre Director Dr Shim tells me he can turn lives around by teaching them restraint.
DR SHIM YONG CHOOL, CENTRE DIRECTOR (Translation): If they are playing games on line, one or two hours is enough. More than that is excessive. So they need to learn self-control. That is the purpose of this camp.
I'm finding with my cell phone confiscated and locked out the back, I feel weird and keep going to my pocket and wanting to check it. It makes me think about my own internet usage. But for these guys who are using it for 10 to 12 hours a day, going completely cold turkey for a month, has got to be tough, very admirable.
15-year-old Chan Woo is typical of the addicts Dr Shim sees at this camp. He often acts out if he loses a computer game.
CHAE CHAN WOO (Translation): I feel like the game is controlling me and when I lose it I lose my temper. Mistake!
I've noticed he's super competitive at all the non-tech games here as well.
REPORTER: Well done.
During his time here, Chan Woo will have a mentor by his side. It's important to have someone to talk to that is more older brother than psychiatrist but Chan Woo's biggest worry is making it through the night without a smartphone.
YEO JOON-HYUK, MENTOR (Translation): I was told you were very outgoing but maybe because you are in a new environment, you don’t make eye contact with me and you bite your nails.
CHAE CHAN WOO (Translation): I feel anxious when I’m alone at home. But here too. If you leave me alone, especially at night, I’ll feel anxious. There is no internet, no TV, so now I don’t know what to do. I feel anxious.
YEO JOON-HYUK (Translation): I will try and be with you as much as I can, for 26 nights, you have to live here without a smartphone. How does that make you feel?
CHAE CHAN WOO (Translation): Maybe I can reduce my anger. So it will be good for me to stay here. It will be hard but during this time I want to get clean. I hope I will succeed.
It's interesting that Chan Woo talks of getting clean, like any addiction, acceptance is a key step and it's great to see Chan Woo owning it and determined to overcome it. It can't be easy for these guys. I notice an older boy in colour therapy looking a little morose. He tells me he doesn't want to be here and agrees to step aside and tell me more.
JEONG SOO IN (Translation): Now I feel more like playing online games. And I really want to go home.
17-year-old Soo In's problem is making real friends. He prefers virtual friends that he meets through his favourite game, Seven Knights.
JEONG SOO IN (Translation): At least in cyberspace it’s a playground for everyone, that’s why I like it.
It's early days you but he's not making friends here and he is worried his online gaming friends will dump him because he's off line.
JEONG SOO IN (Translation): If someone doesn’t access the game for a period of time, they may be kicked out of the guild. I want to go home. I want to eat food cooked by my mother.
A week into the course and the kids are in the depths of withdrawal. Like other types of addicts, they feel it physically and mentally.
YEO JOON-HYUK (Translation): There are various symptoms when they stop playing games, some bite their fingernails, and normally they become overly sensitive so they argue about small things and swear a lot.
JEONG SOO IN (Translation): At first a day felt like it lasted 48 hours. Now it feels like it lasts 100 hours.
To alleviate withdrawal the boys are kept constantly busy and active. Exercise is part of the therapy. But hours of screen time has left some of these guys a bit... Uncoordinated. After a bit of a run around, the centre uses old school analogue fun to keep the boys distracted. The counsellors want the boys to find new passions, hobbies they can take home and use when they feel the urge to go online.
At the end of the day jam packed with activities, you'd think they would be tired but I realise these guys are used to playing online until the early hours of the morning so the mentors who stay with them 24/7 have got their hands full.
YEO JOON-HYUK (Translation): Five, six! Your knees can’t touch the ground.
BOY (Translation): Shut up!
YEO JOON-HYUK (Translation): They’re all going through puberty and they have to stay together, lots of fights happen.
The government is paying $300 per day for each of these 29 boys. It's the only full-time centre in South Korea with a handful of other local government short courses. But the most severe cases come here.
YEO JOON-HYUK (Translation): But as time passes I see them improve and I feel happy about being a mentor.
Do you have anything to report?
BOYS (Translation): Nothing.
YEO JOON-HYUK (Translation): Is this room warm enough? Sleep well.
BOYS (Translation): Yes.
After a few days at the internet Dream Village I'm left wondering if four weeks of abstinence and activities is enough to ward off a full-blown addiction. I'm back in Seoul to meet the triple PhD psychiatrist running a very different treatment centre. While he says the camp is a positive step for addicts, he doesn't believe the methods go far enough.
DR JAE WON LEE, EASYBRAIN CLINIC (Translation): If you send them away would it be treatment? When they come back, they will play games again. If we treat them as computer addicts, they will never want to come here. So I address it as a health issue or a brain control issue.
Dr Lee's focus is on brain function. Patients are assessed psychologically before having their brains scanned to identify signs of addiction such as compulsive behaviour and depression.
NURSE (Translation): When the patient has a depression, game addiction, or insomnia, it depends on their condition, the graph shows different results.
DR JAE WON LEE (Translation): Your depression is 11 points. You’re just slightly depressed. If you press the button the electromagnet turns on. You will hear the loud noise.
What you're seeing is trans-cranial magnetic stimulation. He believes it reduces depression and addictive cravings.
DR JAE WON LEE (Translation): We are using a magnetic pulse to stimulate nerve cells.
Dr Lee says his treatment includes counselling and medication for those who need it, but it's not a quick fix solution. The treatment can last months, if not years. It's impossible to measure the success rate at this clinic because the aim is not to cure but to achieve self-control. Even though the methods are different, it's the same aim as the internet Dream Village.
I'm heading back now to see how the boys are getting on, now that their treatment is nearly finished. Their faces are very different from when I first saw them. Perhaps it is possible to forget about gaming if you're given enough other stimulation. Heading inside for an afternoon counselling session, I'm surprised to find it's a poetry class with a little K-Pop for inspiration.
The counsellors here have really pushed them on communication. They are learning to express their emotions which have been buried in the digital world, so something like poetry is a huge step forward.
JEONG SOO IN (Translation): I’m making kimchi ramen. Let’s drink soju.
They're writing about family, nature and love. But they're also writing the kind of awkward poems you would expect from teenage boys.
BOY (Translation): I want to explore every part of her body, it’s beautiful.
YEO JOON-HYUK (Translation): Sit up straight and lift your head and focus on your mind.
For almost a month, these boys have been taken out of their comfort zone. But tomorrow, the course instructors will really push them over the edge. It's boot camp day and they are here to experience extreme adrenaline. As characters in games, they have leapt off tall buildings and died a hundred times over but here it's for real and the internet addicts can't stop comparing the two worlds.
KIM TONG WAN (Translation): It’s really easy when you die in a game but here, I don’t want to die.
11 metres above the ground, they will feel real world fear and if they complete the challenge, they will feel a sense of achievement.
YEO JOON-HYUK (Translation): Okay you guys… if you fall head first it would be the worst scenario but if you fall with your limbs first, the impact will leave you paralysed. So it is very dangerous.
It seems everyone is scared.
MENTOR (Translation): Come with us, come on. Just put on the safety gear.
JEONG SOO IN (Translation): If I put it on, I have to jump.
YEO JOON-HYUK (Translation): No, some guys are just wearing it.
It doesn't look like Soo In will get out of this one. But in between his protests I notice the course is changing him for the better.
YEO JOON-HYUK (Translation): In the game Seven Knights the characters always jump. So will that make this easier for you?
JEONG SOO IN (Translation): No, a game and reality are different, you have to distinguish them.
The first boys are building up the courage to jump.
BOY (Translation): Why did you make me do this?
Overcoming the terror comes with a sense of victory and for Eun Tek it brings an epiphany.
HWANG EUN TAEK (Translation): In a game I feel excitement in my mind but here I feel all the excitement, in my mind, heart and body, all together.
TEACHER: Is this more fun?
HWANG EUN TAEK (Translation): Yes - more than a game.
It's Soo In's turn and I'm surprised to see him scooting up the pole with determination.
BOYS (Translation): We won’t let you down, you dope…
He doesn't quite grab the bar and he looks defeated. But I think he's relieved. But most importantly, he's faced his fears.
JEONG SOO IN (Translation): I made it, so I feel a sense of accomplishment. I feel…how can I say…kind of emotional.
It's the last day at internet rehab. It's been a long and challenging experience for these guys. On top of the technology ban they have also been without their parents. Finally, they're reunited.
YEO JOON-HYUK (Translation): Look, your mum is clinging to you.
HYANG NAM CHO, MOTHER (Translation): Well done. I’m proud of you. You put up with it for so long.
JEONG SOO IN (Translation): I didn’t believe I could survive for four weeks without a smartphone. After I leave this camp I think I can do more exercise and communicate with other people. I feel good.
HYANG NAM CHO (Translation): That’s my boy. When I first saw Soo In’s face, it was very bright, so I was very relieved… It’s a small thing, but I can feel the difference. I’ll be a mother who has faith in him.
This centre is a test case for other nations who are also dealing with an increasing internet addiction. Even in Australia, there's growing concern over the amount of time kids spend online. The treatment centre will make sure these guys have access to counsellors in their home towns for ongoing support. But when they return to everyday life, will they really get out the Lego and crayons instead of reaching for their smartphone? Chan Woo wanted to get clean to stop the angry outbursts. I hope he can resist the temptation of games and maybe achieve that dream of becoming a teacher one day.
CHAE CHAN WOO (Translation): Here they allowed me to clean my mind and by blocking my access to the internet, I freed myself from it. Thank you, it has been great. Goodbye.
MENTORS (Translation): Good luck, good luck. Goodbye handsome boys.
AMY CHIEN-YU WANG
HEI YEON MYUNG
12th April 2016