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“Ms B” is a 20-year-old Tokyo college student who lives on the Internet. First thing on opening her eyes in the morning – if she’s been to bed – she grabs her smartphone. What are her friends up to on Line, on Twitter?
That’s basically the story of her life. Her body may be in non-virtual space – in class, at the dinner table – but her mind is online from waking to sleeping. Sometimes there is no sleeping. There’s always someone to contact through the small hours: “What’s happening? What’re you doing?”
“I’m sometimes at it for three nights running,” she tells Aera (Sept 2).
She doesn’t consider herself “Internet dependent.” Very few of those Japan’s health ministry tentatively regards as being in that condition do. Still, “It gets to be a problem sometimes,” she admits – a rare and significant acknowledgment.
Last month, the health ministry released a report that, based on questionnaires sent to 264 schools nationwide, estimates 6% of junior high school student and 9% of senior high schoolers are in a state of “Internet dependency.” That’s roughly 518,000 teenagers, nationwide. Factor in the number of “borderline dependents” and the number rises to perhaps 800,000.
What is Internet dependency? A rigorous definition has yet to be devised. The ministry’s survey comprised eight questions, for example, “If you find you’ve left your cell phone at home, would you go back for it even if it meant being late for school?” “Do you use your cell phone while eating or bathing?” “Is your mind on your cell phone during class?” “Does your cell phone give you your only real pleasure in life?” and so on. A “yes” answer to even one question is considered a danger signal. How many yes answers put you over the line is not specified. Ms B, for her part, figures she sends something like 100 messages a day.
The Kurihama Treatment Center in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, counsels Internet dependents on an outpatient basis. Most of the patients are teenagers. Few come on their own. Their worried parents drag them. “Some of these kids can’t even attend school,” Aera hears from Dr Hidenori Nakayama. “In some cases, a parent will confiscate the child’s cell phone. The kid runs off to an Internet cafe, sometimes to be taken into custody for failing to pay for a meal.” That’s extreme and rare – but being late for class, or sleeping through class after having been up all night with the smartphone, is apparently not unusual.
Internet overuse – again, not rigorously defined – has been something of a problem ever since the Internet first came into our lives. It was the advent of the smartphone that turned it into a quasi-epidemic. If a kid is parked in front of a computer screen for hours on end, at least the parents are likely to know about it. Not so with a smartphone taken to bed. That pretty much escapes adult control.
“At this point,” says Aera, “the Internet is so much a part of our lives that it’s impossible to get along without it. Without imposing arbitrary limits, parents must teach their children disciplined use.” Easier said than done.