Thursday, June 27, 2013

Zombies everywhere: Smart phone addiction among the youth

I've been reading more and more about rise of "Digital dementia" and smart phone addiction in Korea. It's reflective of what I see every day here: Most everyone has a smart phone and they're constantly using them. For your consideration, here are a few situations regarding smart phones during my time here thus far:
  • At lunch in Samcheok: An elementary-age boy was playing games on a portable game player. His grandpa got up and gave him an ice cream cone. The boy ate it without taking his eyes off the screen and handed the wrapper back to grandpa when he was finished. The grandpa took a step and threw the wrapper away.
  • At dinner in Sincheorwon: I look over and see a father having dinner with his two young boys. They look to be around 10 years old. They proceeded to play video games throughout the dinner. The three hardly spoke to each other. I wondered how the dad felt to be a ghost.
  • In the standing section, on the train from Seoul to Chuncheon: Though it's called the "standing only" area, there are benches for 3 on either side of the car. One college-aged couple couldn't sit together, so they sat on opposite sides of the train car. They could have easily spoken to each other. The man set down next to me. They spent the 1.5 hour train ride sending messages to each other over KakaoTalk.
  • In the men's room of the Dong Seoul Bus Terminal: a man watching TV on his phone while urinating.
  • At the high school: Many teachers bring their phones to lunch with them. Some check messages during or after eating.
  • At the high school: Students charge their phones between classes with the outlets in hallways.
  • On the way to and from school every day: I dodge students walking slowly because they're holding their phones a foot in front of their faces. Many do not see me walking by.
    • I once watched a high school girl walk into a stoplight pole because she was too busy texting to look up and see it.
I've included examples from daily life and school to illustrate how pervasive smart phone use is here. While not every example is symptomatic of addiction, they show even bus station bathrooms to be fair game for phone usage. 

In an editorial linked below, the Joongang Daily weighed in how to curb phone addiction. They think that the Korean government should lead the way with research and regulations so they can filter down to the individual level. While that's certainly an idea to consider, they have it backwards: It's individuals like students, parents, and teachers who need to change first. Regulations can come later. As people learn from what they see, parents need to teach their children how to handle digital devices and how to avoid growing too attached to them. They can set an example. Teachers can as well. Normally I would say "Parents and students" only, but since Korea's youth spend spend more time at school than at home, I added teachers to that sentence because of their prominence in students' lives. As noted above, many teachers bring their phones to lunch with them and take time out of eating and conversing to check messages. They are in a prime position to change students' behavior by simply not spending as much time on their phones. Parents can do the same. Parents the ones who can show show their offspring how to regulate themselves.

But therein lies the problem: Students won't change unless their elders do, and the elders around me show no signs of changing. They  are glued to their phones and devices day and night. They're the ones who're setting the example for the youth, and they're the ones who are normalizing this behavior. I see moms with baby backpacks or papooses punching the touchscreen while they stroll about. I see dads at the playground looking up from whatever's onscreen to check on the kids. They as engrossed as the kids are. If Mom and Dad don't bother putting their phones away, why would little Min-su or Ji-hye?

One profound irony is that the high school grade 1 textbook includes a chapter called "My Smart Life," in which students discuss the merits of technology. The chapter warns against excessive phone and device use, but the message goes unheeded. No one's taken time to reflect that maybe they shouldn't send the nth Kakao message or play another round of the game du jour. Instead they carry on as if it doesn't matter. They tell me that phones are important for relaxing, but I wonder relaxed they can be when they're compelled to spend every spare second staring at their touchscreens. The kids don't seem particularly at ease when they're bent over their desks squinting at the small letters they're trying to read, either.

Phone addiction's not a new issue here. Several students have admitted to feeling addicted to their phones in their writing assignments. They've written about how they need to have them around at all times. Furthermore, not a day goes by without kids talking about how tired they are because they spent another night staying up sending messages and playing games. The time the kids spend texting and gaming cuts into their sleeping and studying time and thus helps prevent them from remembering what they learned at school. This happens and they know it. I take it that the parents have a foggy notion about it, too. Yet, the addiction persists in spite of having the solutions in plain sight. Evidently no one takes turning off the thing off too seriously. The same goes for parents taking charge. In the "'Digital dementia'" article linked below, a mother worries about her 15 year old son's "dementia," yet the article notes that he's spent the last 10 years in front of the computer and the TV. The immediate question here concerns why she didn't step in herself. She and the father had the power to change their son's habits. They could have stopped him from hurting himself. Parents everywhere should take more time to monitor their children's device usage, cut the cord altogether. Better yet, hold off on letting the kids have digital devices for as long as possible. There are few, if any, good reasons why elementary school students should have smart phones. Ditto for middle school and high school students, especially in this country town. All of the messages, games, and Internet page viewings can wait. The same goes for the parents and the teachers. Surely, it's better to protect the head (literally) than to get further ensconced in digital devices. The kids need guiding.

For further reading and explication:

Korea Joongang Daily: ‘Digital dementia’ is on the rise

  • The opening paragraphs concerns the 15 year old mentioned above and how he couldn't remember the code to his own home thanks to all his screen time. (Reblogged here)

"Smart phones cause rifts in families"
  • Key passage from the article:
Another mother found that her daughter, in her first year of middle school, had a naked picture of an unknown man on her phone. The mother called the hotline and said, “When I mentioned what I saw on the phone, my daughter lashed out by saying, ‘why are you looking at my smartphone without my permission?’”  
  • If mom's paying the bill, it's mom's smart phone. The daughter's only borrowing it. As a middle school student, she had no right to whine about asking permission to use the phone. Furthermore, the pohoto of a naked man is an immediate red flag. The mom's right to ask about it. 
 "Smart phone addiction has experts talking"
  • Key passage from the article:
A 49-year-old housewife surnamed Hyeon recently arranged a family gathering at her house in Bundang, Gyeonggi, to celebrate the birthday of her father-in-law. About 10 people gathered for the meal, but it was quieter than it ever had been before.
Hyeon’s two daughters - one a freshman in college and the other a freshman in high school - both had their eyes glued to their smartphones throughout the family dinner.
    •  Again, she's the parent. She needs to get them off of their phones. It's her responsibility to explain and enforce appropriate dinner behavior.
The editorial: "Protect teens from digital addiction"

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