People have been worrying that the Internet is going to turn our brains to mush for years, just as they have done for every new media technology since Socrates’ objections to the invention of writing, as scholars from Marshall McLuhan to Neil Postman to Nicholas Carr have articulated. But there seems to have been a big uptick in media reports of such concerns recently, particularly in places like China, Singapore, and South Korea. The past several months have seen a rash of news stories across Asia about the phenomenon of so-called Internet “addiction,” which is quickly growing to embrace behaviors relating to smartphones and video games, as well.
In Singapore last week, for example, media outlets there were reporting that people who spend too much time checking their smartphones should be considered addicted to them and dealt with accordingly. South Korea already has what’s called a Shutdown Law, which prevents children under the age of 16 from playing games from midnight-6am, and lawmakers there are now very seriously considering passing a new Game Addiction Law, which would regulate video games like drugs, alcohol and gambling.
In mid-June, India opened its first Internet de-addiction clinic, with more surely to follow. And ever since China classified internet addiction as a mental disorder in 2008, parents there have been sending their children to boot-camp style Internet-addiction rehab centers that promise to cure them through military-style training and discipline.
In this week’s ADLP podcast, I speak with Internet scholar Gabriele de Seta of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, about what exactly is behind the surge in reports of Internet addiction and the moral panic that seems to be accompanying it in so many Asian societies. In our brief conversation, de Seta made a few points that are worth pulling out here.
“Discourses on addiction work quite well in making the news. We are users of these apps and platforms, but also ‘users’ in the sense of being addicted to them, as with drugs. It makes the addiction discourse in the media that much easier.”
The Asian discourse of addiction, he says, appears to be based in two related factors. The first is that “digital media in general — Internet, video games, smartphones — are extremely popular in Asian countries, and they’ve been popularized very quickly there. The perception is that Asia is digitizing at an accelerated rate compared to the rest of the world.” This is also a narrative that we see in a lot of Western media coverage of Asia’s digitization, that it’s happening very rapidly. “There’s a deterministic attitude toward this: either the Internet will democratise these nations or they’ll all become addicted to it.”
The second factor, de Seta observes, is rooted in the media coverage of all this. “Discourses on addiction work quite well in making the news,” he points out. “There’s already a perception that we’re hooked on Facebook and WhatsApp. So it’s easy to sell the news that somebody has died or committed suicide or something because of using them too much.”
De Seta also sees an interesting, related double meaning in the term “user”: “We are users of these apps and platforms, but also ‘users’ in the sense of being addicted to them, as with drugs. It makes the addiction discourse in the media that much easier.”
Although de Seta’s research is limited mainly to China, he acknowledges that this is not an exclusively Chinese phenomenon. “It’s common across Asia, from Taiwan and Japan to South Korea and beyond to India and Singapore,” he says. “It’s less about geography and more a factor of cultural and social expectations about what kids are supposed to do.”
Those social expectations run particularly deep in many Asian societies, and as wide as the generation gap is in societies all over the world right now — in which parents who grew up with only three TV stations are now struggling to connect with children who have never known a world without 24/7 broadband Internet connections and YouTube — that gap can be much wider in developing Asia, where these changes have happened even more quickly. Whether or not these sorts of extreme solutions work at “rehabilitating” obsessive young Internet users is not the point, de Seta says.
“What really comes across is that the problem is not with the Internet or games but with communication across generations and parents who aren’t really paying attention to what’s going on with their kids’ lives outside of the home.”
“[Internet rehab solutions] serve as a kind of catharsis,” he says. “What really comes across is that the problem is not with the Internet or games but with communication across generations and parents who aren’t really paying attention to what’s going on with their kids’ lives outside of the home. In China, at least, all of this concern over addiction seems to be just a symptom of larger social issues between kids and parents.”
For more reading on the most current research on the phenomenon of Internet and digital addiction, de Seta recommends the following resources:
- Golub, A., & Lingley, K. (2008). “Just like the Qing empire: Internet addiction, MMOGs, and moral crisis in contemporary China.” Games and Culture, 3(1), 59–75.
- Szablewicz, M. (2010). “The ill effects of ‘opium for the spirit’: A critical cultural analysis of China’s Internet addiction moral panic.” Chinese Journal of Communication, 3(4), 453–470.
- Shek, D. T. L., Sun, R. C. F., & Yu, L. (2013). “Internet addiction.” In D. W. Pfaff (Ed.), Neuroscience in the 21st Century (pp. 2775–2811). New York, NY: Springer.
- Mei, S., & Liu, L. (2012). “Research on sensation seeking between Internet addiction disorder and common students in college.” In Advanced Technology in Teaching-Proceedings of the 2009 3rd International Conference on Teaching and Computational Science (WTCS 2009) (pp. 433–436).