Hooked on the internet

Hooked on the internet

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People are realising that too many hours online every day is likely to hint at a bigger problem, writes Alvin Yuen

Imagine going for a day without access to the internet. If the thought makes you nervous, depressed or is just downright unthinkable, you might have a serious problem.

From social networking to researching assignments, there is no doubt that the internet plays an important role in almost every Hongkonger's life.

But, for some people, it's more than just a tool to keep in touch with their friends or to grab a few fast facts or references for that last-minute essay.

Addiction to anything, be it drugs, shopping, alcohol, gambling, or constantly messaging people on Facebook, is a problem. But, with a significant increase in internet addiction and the sometimes bizarre methods of dealing with it, people are becoming more aware that this is a social issue.

In 2005, a 28-year-old man collapsed and died from exhaustion after a series of long gaming sessions. And in a survey of Hong Kong youths aged between 10 and 18, almost half show signs or symptoms of internet addiction.

Discussions on the radio about these problems are common. For example, a talk show in August hosted by RTHK Radio 2 discussed problems that parents face when dealing with teens that have symptoms of internet addiction. The show also discussed the effects it has on these teens, such as an unwillingness to do homework. Another radio show, the 908 programme, also discussed topics related to the internet, such as problems concerning online relationships and addiction to online social networking services.

This growing awareness of the problem has spawned numerous services that claim to help those affected. Some are more successful than others - and some go to extremes.

Mainland internet addiction boot camps, for example, have made news headlines due to the methods they use.

In July, the Ministry of Health banned electroshock treatment. In November, the ministry also banned any form of surgery or physical punishment as means of curing internet addiction.

Naturally, internet addiction is most prevalent among young people. China News Service reports the mainland has some 338 million users and more than 60 per cent of them are teens. Projects such as Hong Kong's 'On1ine New Page Project' seek to help 'young internet addicts regain their self-control on computer use, promote educational messages of healthy computer use" as well as conduct "research on issues of internet addiction on a continuous basis'.

Project leader Joseph Hung Hin-chung says the majority of addicts are male and only a small percentage is female. But the number of female adolescents who have problems, specifically with social networking tools, is on the rise.

'Most internet addicts have other underlying core problems; such as issues involving schools and family,' he says.

Online New Page Project is run by the Hong Kong Christian Service and sponsored by the Community Chest. Services range from talks to workshops that cover topics such as understanding the symptoms of internet addiction and prevention methods.

'Every year about 60-70 internet addicts come for our assistance, but this number only includes cases that are actually recorded and does not take into account last-minute calls for assistance,' Hung says.

The programme usually lasts two to three months and is free of charge.

The Social Welfare Department also holds programmes to educate the public on the issue.

One such programme aims 'to inform children and their parents ...[about] what internet addiction is and how to prevent it', said a spokesman for the department.

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