I recently watched the disturbing documentary “Love Child,” about a South Korean couple who became so addicted to online gaming they let their baby die of malnutrition. South Korea considers internet addiction a public health crisis. The government estimates up to 30 percent of those under 18, or about 2.4 million people, are at risk.
This is the nation where in 2005, a 28-year old man once dropped dead of heart failure after a 50-hour gaming marathon, and another man died in 2002 after 86 uninterrupted hours of game play. Multi-player gaming in South Korea is extremely popular thanks to its fast and widespread broadband network. Games are televised and professional players are treated like stars.
In Korea there is concern it’s creating cognitive problems. “Overuse of smartphones and game devices hampers the balanced development of the brain,” noted Dr. Byun Gi-won, who runs the Balance Brain Center in Seoul. “Heavy users are likely to over develop the left side of their brains, leaving the right side untapped or under developed.”
Doctor Kim Young-bo at Gachon University Gil Medical Center in Incheon reported: “From the early 2000s, I’ve seen a drastic increase in patients with reduced memory spans, especially young people. Most of them were exposed to the heavy consumption of digital gadgets.”
Long term, underdevelopment of the right brain can lead to early-onset dementia, what is being termed digital dementia. “Ten to 15 percent of those with the mild cognitive disorders develop dementia,” reported psychiatrist Park Ki-jeong. The number of people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s suffering from cognitive problems has increased by 37% between 2008 and 2012.
A preliminary study of 150 people aged 20 to 35 in Japan, showed that more than one in 10 are suffering from severe problems with their memory. “They’re losing the ability to remember new things, to pull out old data or to distinguish between important and unimportant information. It’s a type of brain dysfunction,” said Toshiyuki Sawaguchi, professor of neurobiology at Hokkaido University’s school of medicine.
A study of young Chinese males, ages of 14 and 21, diagnosed with internet addiction, found more patterns of “abnormal white matter” on brain scans compared with scans of non-addicts. These changes showed evidence of disrupting pathways related to emotions, decision-making, and self control. The researchers said earlier studies have found similar white matter changes in the brain scans of people addicted to alcohol, cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and meth.
The problem is not unique to Asia. Researchers in the U.K. at Cardiff, Derby and Nottingham Trent universities report some gamers play up to 90 hours a session, developing a “pathological” addiction. While conventional video games have an ending, role-playing games involving numerous players may not. The study, published in the Addiction Research and Theory journal, warned that Western governments might have no choice but to limit usage.