Across the entire population, South Korea's government estimated 2.55 million people are addicted to smartphones, using the devices for 8 hours a day or more, in its first survey of smartphone addiction released earlier this year. Smartphone addicts find it difficult to live without their handsets and their constant use disrupts work and social life, according to NIA. Most of their personal interaction is carried out on the mobile handset. Overuse of smartphones may be accompanied by physical symptoms such as turtle neck syndrome caused by having the head in a constant forward position and a pain or numbness in fingers or wrists.
Though Internet addiction is not recognized as a mental illness, there is a growing call from medical practitioners and health officials worldwide to treat it as an illness rather than a social problem.
The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists Internet Use Disorder as meriting further study. It is unclear whether it will be recognized as a mental illness in a major revision of the standard-setting manual due out next year. But as the Internet becomes more pervasive and mobile, more societies are grappling with its downside. In Asia, countries that have experienced explosive growth in the Internet such as Taiwan, China and South Korea are most active in carrying out research into whether Internet addiction should be recognized as a mental illness, according to Lee Hae-kook, a psychiatry professor at Catholic University of Korea, College of Medicine.
South Korea already provides taxpayer-funded counselors for those who cannot control their online gaming or other Internet use. But the emergence of the smartphone as a mainstream, must-have device even for children is changing the government's focus to proactive measures from reactive.
South Korea's government is widening efforts to prevent Web and digital addiction in school-age children and preschoolers. Starting next year, South Korean children from the age 3 to 5 will be taught to protect themselves from overusing digital gadgets and the Internet.
Nearly 90 percent children from that age group will learn at kindergartens how to control their exposure to digital devices and the danger of staying online for long hours. The Ministry of Public Administration and Security is revising laws so that teaching the danger of Internet addiction becomes mandatory from pre-school institutions to high schools.
Kim, the kindergarten teacher, said educating children against digital and web addiction should start early because smartphones are their new toys.
From next year, her program for 3-year-olds will focus on introducing them to the positive activities they can do with the computers, such listening to music. Children aged 4 and 5, will learn the dangers of overuse and how to control their desire to use computers.
Programs also include making and learning the moves for "computer exercises" and singing songs with lyrics that instruct kids to close their eyes and stretch their bodies after playing computer games. They read fairy tales where a character falls prey to Internet addiction and learn alternative games they can play without computers or the Internet.
Kim said parents have to be involved in the education. One of the pledge cards written by a 5-year-old girl reads: "I promise to play Nintendo for 30 minutes only. Daddy promises to play less cellphone games and play more with me."
Youkyung Lee can be reached via Twitter: www.twitter.com/YKLeeAP