Internet addiction is still a festering concern across the world, and Japan is taking it seriously. Between the fall and spring of last year, researchers at Nihon University surveyed the internet usage habits of nearly 100,000 students. Nearly 8,000 of them, or 8 percent, they discovered, were "pathologically addicted" to the internet. Out of that group, 23 percent had trouble sleeping, and 15 percent were prone to awaken suddenly in the night.
The government now fears that there are as many as half a million high school and middle school students, aged 12-18, who suffer from internet addiction, so it's taking a radical step to combat the growing trend: the education ministry is opening up government-run "fasting camps" to help the youth unplug.
The Daily Telegraph reports that "[t]he ministry is planning a comprehensive research project into internet addiction in the next fiscal year and has asked the government to fund immersion programmes designed to get children away from their computers, mobile phones and hand-held game devices." The students will be sent to outdoor learning centers, which sound a lot like summer camps.
"It's becoming more and more of a problem," Akifumi Sekine, a spokesman for the ministry, told the Telegraph. "We estimate this affects around 518,000 children at middle and high schools across Japan, but that figure is rising and there could be far more cases because we don't know about them all."
And maybe they'll need those serene outdoor settings, because pulling the plug can be like going cold turkey for a drug user—recent studies have shown that heavy internet users suffer from withdrawal when they cut the connection.
Internet addiction is a poorly understood problem; recent surveys have shown that as many as one in eight Americans is addicted to the internet. Then again, internet addiction surveys are notoriously easy to manipulate, and skepticism surrounds the very concept itself. Still, the purported online addiction rate rises to between 8 and 21 percent in young Americans. And China, which is home to the world's largest internet-using population, also sees some of the most acute—or at least most headline-grabbing—cases of internet addiction. A 14-year-old boy poisoned his parents for banning him from gaming; another attempted suicide to protest an internet restriction.
As such, China has essentially pioneered the concept "internet fasting camps" that Japan is opening now—but only in intent, not execution. China opened its first Internet Addiction Center in 2004. According to Time, it's a "military-run boot camp in Beijing" where, as of 2009, 3,000 adolescents had been treated for online addiction. Though China is apparently softening its approach, these were brutal, authoritarian places where the victims were treated more like inmates, and were sometimes subjected to beatings by counselors. In 2009, one internet "addict" was beaten to death.
Japan's program sounds exponentially more humane. The students will stay in "outdoor learning facilities" where there's no web connection, and be "encouraged to take part in outdoor activities, team sports and games," according to Russia Today. This approach is similar to American internet rehabs, private institutions like reStart and Promises that offer stays at quiet, verdant unplugged getaways and seem to be on track to becoming a cottage industry.
All of which certainly sound better than beatings and forced physical labor at Chinese boot camps. And since studies finger rising internet use as contributing to sleep and eating disorders, as well as depression and poor academic performance, heading outdoors for a the occasional internet fast sounds like a pretty good idea. We could all probably use a good data fast from time to time.