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An increasing number of people are absorbed so much in playing games, chatting and surfing online that the habit is causing them problems in their daily lives. Internet addiction should be viewed as a social problem involving both children and adults. Families, educators and the central and local governments should take measures to combat the problem, including education, advice and counseling for people who have developed Internet addictions.

For the first time ever, a panel of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has carried out surveys covering nearly 100,000 junior high and senior high school students and found out that 8.1 percent of them were addicted to the Internet. The panel distributed questionnaires to some 140,000 students through junior high and senior high schools in Tokyo, Hokkaido and Japan’s 45 prefectures from October 2012 to March 2013 and about 98,000 students responded. If the 8.1 percent figure is applied to the total number of students in junior and senior high schools, an estimated 518,000 of them are Internet addicts. This number should be taken seriously.

The National Hospital Organization’s Kurihama Medical and Addiction Center in Kanagawa Prefecture carried out surveys in 2008 and estimated that some 2.71 million adults are Internet addicts. This number is growing as computers become increasingly portable. In July 2011, the center opened a special section to deal with Internet addiction and since then some 400 people have contacted the center and more than 150 received treatment.

In the surveys of junior and senior high school students, the largest number used personal computers followed by smartphones and ordinary mobile phones in that order. The surveys found that 9 percent of junior high school students and 14.4 percent of senior high school students are online for more than an average of five hours a day on weekdays. The percentage increases to 13.9 percent for junior high school students and 21.2 percent for senior high school students weekends. These figures are astounding.

In the past 30 days, 69.2 percent of all students surveyed used the Internet to search for information and news, 64.4 percent visited video sites such as YouTube, 62.5 percent did e-mail, 33.4 percent used social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, and 20.2 percent played online games. Students were allowed to give multiple answers.

The survey asked students to say yes or no to eight questions that are based on internationally used criteria. Among the questions were the following: (1) Do you feel that you have to gradually increase the hours of using the Internet to gain satisfaction?; (2) Have you tried but failed to shorten your hours online or completely stop using the Internet?; and (3) Did you ever risk damaging important personal relationships due to your Internet habits? The health and welfare ministry panel decided that 7,952 students or 8.1 percent who said yes to five or more questions had an unhealthy dependence on the Internet. The percentage was higher among female students (9.9 percent) than male students (6.4 percent).

Symptoms of Internet addiction include the following: Skipping meals while surfing online; feeling uneasy if a mobile phone is not at hand all the time; staying up all night and sleeping in the daytime; withdrawing from society; failing to concentrate on studies or work; and becoming sick due to malnutrition. It is important for people to understand that Internet addiction can have serious consequences, including damage to important personal relationships, including family ties.

Special attention must be paid to online games in which Internet users form a virtual team and attack the enemy. If the team wins, team members praise each other and gain a sense of accomplishment, which serves to deepen their addictions. Regardless of whether the team wins or loses, it becomes difficult for team members to quit the team and the game because they fear that doing so would invite criticism from other team members. In both cases, people are bound by virtual human relationships. Among children it is becoming popular to chat in a group using a free Internet service. They often sit up all night chatting online, and fear that quitting the chat session will lead to ostracism.

It is important for both parents and teachers to teach students healthy Internet habits. Parents can talk with their children and limit the hours they can play online games. They can also take steps such as prohibiting their children’s use of mobile phones at night and installing filters to block access to harmful Internet sites. Teachers should instruct students on how to use the Internet in beneficial ways to further their education and how to avoid developing an online addiction.

It is also important for people — whether adults or children — to realize that relationships in the real world are much more important and fruitful than virtual online relations. Internet addicts should try to reduce their dependency by having digital detox days and spending more time with friends and family members.

The central and local governments should carry out studies on Internet addiction to become more familiar with the causes and to learn how counselors and doctors treat Internet addicts. They can then disseminate relevant information and help organize networks at schools and other institutions to deal with the problem.

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