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(Just Don't Log On)

Welcome to Internet rescue camp, South Korea's attempt to get web-obsessed teenage guys away from their computer screens

By Martin Fackler in Mokcheon, South Korea

The compound—part boot camp, part rehab center—resembles programs around the world for troubled teens. Drill instructors drive young men through military-style obstacle courses, counselors lead group sessions, and there are even therapeutic workshops on pottery and drumming.

But these young people are not battling alcohol or drugs. They have severe cases of what many believe is a new and potentially deadly addiction: cyberspace.

They have come to the Jump Up Internet Rescue School, the first camp of its kind in South Korea and possibly the world, to be cured.

South Korea boasts of being the most wired nation on earth. More than 90 percent of homes have inexpensive, high-speed broadband access (about 50 percent of American Internet users have broadband at home); online gaming is a professional sport, and teen social life revolves around dimly lit Internet parlors that have sprung up on nearly every street corner.

"Korea has been most aggressive in embracing the Internet," says Koh Young-sam, head of the government-run Internet Addiction Counseling Center. "Now we have to lead in dealing with its consequences."

Compulsive Internet use has become a big issue for South Korea in recent years, as users started dying from exhaustion after playing online games for days on end. A growing number of students have skipped school to stay online—shocking behavior in this intensely competitive society, which values education so highly.

China, Taiwan, The U.S.

Up to 30 percent of South Koreans under 18, or about 2.4 million people, are at risk of Internet addiction, says Ahn Dong-hyun of Hanyang University in Seoul. Researchers found that South Korean teens spend at least two hours a day online, usually playing games or chatting. Many may show signs of actual addiction, like rising levels of tolerance that drive them to seek ever-longer sessions online, and withdrawal symptoms like anger and craving when prevented from logging on.

To address the problem, the government set up 140 Internet-addiction counseling centers, in addition to treatment programs at hospitals and the Internet Rescue camp.

Though some health experts question whether overuse of the Internet is an addiction in the strict medical sense, many agree that it has become a growing problem in many countries. Doctors in China and Taiwan have reported similar disorders in teens. Jerald J. Block, a psychiatrist at Oregon Health and Science University, estimates that up to 9 million Americans may be at risk for the disorder. Only a handful of clinics in the U.S. specialize in treating it, he says.

The rescue camp is in Mokcheon, an hour south of Seoul, the capital. This year, the camp held its first two 12-day sessions, with 16 to 18 male participants each time. (Researchers say most compulsive computer users are male.) The government funds the program, which is tuition-free. Participants live at the camp, where they are denied computer use and allowed only one hour of cell-phone calls a day. They follow a rigorous regimen of physical exercise and group activities, like horseback riding, aimed at building emotional connections to the real world.

'Better Than Games!'

At first, the camp had problems with participants sneaking away to go online, even during a 10-minute break before lunch. Campers are now under constant surveillance, including while asleep; they are also kept busy with chores like doing their laundry and cleaning their rooms.

One participant, Lee Chang-hoon, 15, began using the computer to pass the time while his parents were working and he was home alone. He quickly came to prefer the virtual world, where he seemed to enjoy more popularity and success than in the real one. Chang-hoon spent 17 hours a day online, mostly looking at Japanese comics and playing a combat role-playing game. He often skipped school to catch up on sleep. When his parents told him he had to go to school, he reacted violently. Desperate, his mother sent him to the camp.

As a drill instructor barked orders, Chang-hoon and 17 other boys marched through rain to the obstacle course. Wet and shivering, Chang-hoon climbed a telephone pole with small metal rungs. At the top, he slowly stood up, legs quaking. The other boys held a safety rope attached to a harness on his chest.

"Tell your mother you love her!" ordered the instructor.

"I love you, my parents!" he replied.

"Then jump!" ordered the instructor. Chang-hoon squatted and leapt to a nearby trapeze bar, catching it in his hands.

"That was better than games!" Chang-hoon said afterward.

Was it thrilling enough to wean him from the Internet?

"I'm not thinking about games now, so maybe this will help," he replied. "From now on, maybe I'll just spend five hours a day online."