Horrific news about a South Korean couple neglecting their real child while spending 12 hours a day nurturing a virtual child online is catalyzing worldwide disgust. The couples’ prematurely born 3-month old baby, left in their house alone for hours at a time, eventually died of starvation. The couple was arrested last week after a five-month chase.
The statistics most often cited in news about this story include “proof” that South Korea is Internet-obsessed, with more than 70% of the population online, and 96% believing that Internet access is a fundamental right. Plus, Internet cafes are a huge business in South Korea, with many open 24 hours to accommodate broadband insomniacs.
The takeaway from all of this being: the child died because South Koreans are obsessed with living virtual lives, and this is an example of what can happen when people are addicted to the Internet.
No argument can be made that the death of this child is anything but horrible or that the parents are anything but guilty of neglect in the most extreme sense. But, using this infant’s death as a way to stoke the fires about Internet addiction is just short of ridiculous.
First, let’s take a look at the statistics allegedly proving that South Korea is dangerously Internet obsessed. More than 70% of South Korea’s population is online. That’s true. According to the Internet World Stats Usage and Population Statistics, here are a few other countries with comparable online percentages:
Hong Kong: 70%
United States: 75%
And the list could go on for pages. The point is that telling us more than 70% of South Koreans are online means relatively nothing. All this tells us is that South Korea is one of several countries from all over the world with 70% or more of their populations using the Internet.
Next, we’re told that 96% of South Koreans believe using the Internet is a fundamental right. I located the BBC/GlobeScan survey that stat comes from and it appears correct that most Koreans surveyed “strongly agreed that Internet access is a fundamental right.” What’s interesting is that so do 94% of Mexicans, a country with only 25% of its population online. And so do 91% of Brazilians, a country with only 35% of its population online. And so do 87% of the Portuguese, with only 42% of the population online.
I suspect we’re told that a high percentage of South Koreans claim Internet access as a right to demonstrate how “addicted” they are—but, as we see again, the statistic means relatively nothing. According to the survey, countries far less plugged in than South Korea expressed the same opinion.
As to the number of Internet cafes, that’s a more difficult stat to nail down. Wikipedia claims 20,000 cafes in South Korea, which, if correct, is about one per every 2500 residents. Again, I’m not sure what this tells us other than Internet cafes are a booming business in South Korea, as I’m sure they are in any number of countries with comparable Internet usage statistics and high tourism rates.
The two factors are logically linked. South Korea is the 36thmost traveled-to country in the world, with roughly 7 million tourists visiting every year pumping more than $5 billion into its economy. Many tourists use Internet cafes to stay online when they travel, so we can safely assume much of the Internet café traffic in South Korea is from tourists. But even if that weren’t true, there’s really no compelling point here in favor of the addiction hypothesis.
What this leaves us with is a tragic case of neglect that no one will ever be able to fully explain. But I was pleased to see that Lylah Alphonse, writing in the Boston.com Child Caring blog, sheds light on the tragedy by explaining the cultural influences on the child’s parents. From her post:
According to a 2005 report in the International Journal of Nursing Studies, a six-week study of 50 women in Korea who had given birth to premature infants showed that the new mothers felt “self-blame, concern about the infant, reluctance to express negatives, fear of stigmatizing responses to the infant by others, and delayed joy in mothering.” The reasons were largely cultural: Prematurity is stigmatized because many people there believe that negative thoughts can lead to negative consequences, and that mothers bear responsibility for the condition of their infants at birth. Pregnant women are expected to look only at “beautiful” things in order to have a beautiful child; everything the mother-to-be eats, thinks, feels, or sees is thought to influence the physical characteristics of the baby.
In the virtual world of Prius Online, players choose their careers and the friends, and are rewarded with a child for successfully passing a certain level — a perfect child, with magical powers. The game, which used to be called Anima Online, is a 3-D Real Time Emotional Fantasy game — that is, it’s an alternate reality, one where players can be automatically and effortlessly successful.
In the Internet addiction alarmists’ zeal to use this tragedy as a showpiece (particularly the always alarmist British press), they’ve entirely ignored the cultural factors Alphonse cites above. If the couple didn’t have a virtual world to retreat to, would they have found another way to escape? We’ll never know for sure, but it certainly seems that the shame the young mother experienced for her perceived role in the child being premature would still have been there—and most of the ways people choose to escape shame and guilt have been around far longer than the Internet.
This tragedy underscores a fact that will become increasingly clear as even more people get online: what someone brings to the technology will affect the outcome of using the technology. That includes cultural influences, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, impulsiveness, loneliness, poor self esteem, any number of psychological disorders, etc. Most people online will never experience negative outcomes, but a small percentage will. Sounds a lot like what happens when people use a far more dangerous technology called driving a car.
And while horrific stories like this make the news, they will always be a tiny fraction of the tragedies occuring around the world every day that have nothing to do with virtual obsessions–most of which we’ll never even hear about.