As a child, you were no doubt prone to saying things like “Just one more minute” when a parent told you to turn off the TV or quit playing Nintendo, and short of bodily tossing you into the backyard, there wasn’t a whole lot mom or dad could do about that. But Internet addiction among kids in Japan has become so prevalent—one statistic holds that half a million of them suffer from it, and “that figure is rising,” according to ministry of education spokesman Akifumi Sekine—that the government is investing in “immersion projects” to break this dependency.
"We want to get them out of the virtual world and to encourage them to have real communication with other children and adults," Sekine told the Daily Telegraph. These “fasting” camps, therefore, would exist in a state of total Internet blackout and encourage outdoor activities and team games, which, as we all know, every computer geek fears and despises.
Japan, of course, is home to the hikikomori epidemic; the word refers to both a condition of acute social withdrawal and those individuals who seek such extreme isolation and confinement. More and more young people have developed this condition along with sleeping or eating disorders, depression, and in some cases, even more serious health problems. Online hikikomori message boards have proliferated, connecting these otherwise disconnected people in virtual space and, to some extent, normalizing a pathological behavior.
In light of these circumstances, the ministry of education is interested not only in getting kids to unplug from the Internet every now and then but to show them that they can also put down their cell phones and handheld games. The rehab programs, to be held in public and outdoor spaces, form just one plank of their policy—they aim to conduct a comprehensive research project into Internet addiction in the next fiscal year.
That’s partly due to a lack of data on the problem, Sekine said. It can be difficult to gauge just how many people in the country show symptoms of Internet dependence, and especially in the more radical cases of hikikomori, the rejection of any larger community itself forms a hurdle for even the most committed researcher.
Indeed, the nature of Internet addiction itself is still up for debate—according to the American Psychological Association, “many psychologists even doubt that addiction is the right term to describe what happens to people when they spend too much time online.”
“It seems misleading to characterize behaviors as ‘addictions’ on the basis that people say they do too much of them,” Sara Kiesler, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, told APA. “No research has yet established that there is a disorder of Internet addiction that is separable from problems such as loneliness or problem gambling, or that a passion for using the Internet is long-lasting.”
Still, it’s hard to refute the notion that the Internet is capable of irreparably damaging certain users. Just this year, a documentary emerged about a South Korean couple who had allowed their three-month-old daughter to starve to death while they tended to the needs of a virtual baby instead. When it came to avoiding jail time over their negligence, they successfully argued that Internet addiction had impaired their judgment, absolving them of responsibility in the death.
If Japan’s new programs can preempt tragedies like that one, they will certainly have been worthwhile, no matter how we choose to diagnose Internet-related disorders in the future. Besides, who couldn’t do with a little fresh air? That reminds me—I’m overdue myself.