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Internet, gaming addiction similar to drug dependence: Japan expert

Akinori Masuda, a physician specializing in psychosomatic medicine, is seen at his clinic in Kagoshima on Oct. 31, 2019. (Mainichi/Hideho Furihata)

KAGOSHIMA -- Internet and online gaming addiction are similar to a dependence on drugs, warns Akinori Masuda, a physician specializing in psychosomatic medicine who authored a book on the state of children who are absorbed in using the internet or playing online games.

Excerpts of a recent interview with the Mainichi Shimbun follow:

Mainichi: The contents of your book are serious. What is the definition of addiction to the internet and online games?

Masuda: Children who show at least five of nine conditions such as being unable to stop playing online games, becoming violent when deprived of games consoles and being uninterested in anything other than the internet and online games, are considered addicted. The American Psychiatric Association recognized "internet gaming disorder" as a new clinical condition in 2013. People with the disorder are said to have tendencies to act violently as the amount of dopamine, a kind of excitement hormone, increases in their brain, just like those who use stimulants.

A Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry survey in 2018 shows that some 930,000 junior high and high school students in Japan were showing suspected symptoms of internet gaming disorder. The number of patients who visit my clinic to treat the illness will likely surpass 100 this year. Many of them are absorbed in using their smartphones late at night and have stopped attending school because they cannot wake up in the morning. Sleep is the most important thing for the development of the brain, and the addiction jeopardizes sleep. Such symptoms are seen among a growing number of young children.

Mainichi: Smartphones have been widely used for some 10 years. When did you first notice such symptoms among children?

Masuda: Seven to eight years ago. The causes of truancy among children who undergo treatment at my clinic have changed. Many of them had cited schoolyard bullying and their dislike of studying as the reasons. Now, the main reason is sleeping disorders, such as that they cannot fall asleep, have nightmares and can't wake up in the morning. I looked into the cause of such sleeping disorders and found their use of online games and smartphones. When I ask questions, they reply, "Nothing in particular," so it's difficult to continue a dialogue. But when I say, "Why don't you stop using your smartphone?" many of them get furious and resist.

Around the same time, I began receiving requests from elementary, junior high and high schools to deliver speeches on the impact of the internet on children. During my lectures, I conducted surveys on students and began to grasp the details of schoolchildren's use of the internet. Roughly 40% of junior high and high school students use the internet and smartphones for at least two hours a day, and 15 to 20% of them are suspected of being addicted. The ratio of those suspected of having internet addiction accounted for 17% of boys in early elementary school grades. Boys tend to play online games, while high school girls use the internet for social media for prolonged periods.

Mainichi: What do you think are the solutions to these problems?

Masuda: It's necessary for families with children to create rules on the use of the internet and online games. The government should develop legislation banning minors from using the internet at least from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m. South Korea has introduced a "shutdown law" to block children aged under 16 from accessing the internet late at night and early in the morning, and France prohibits children aged 3-15 from bringing their smartphones into kindergartens and primary and middle schools.

Japan has lagged behind other countries in countermeasures against children's addiction to the internet and online games. However, at a model school in the Kagoshima Prefecture town of Satsuma, southwestern Japan, children keep diaries on their sleep and media habits to allow teachers to check their use of online games and smartphones. The municipal government has also distributed a bath poster to households in the town to encourage parents and children to think about their appropriate use of smartphones, online games and the internet while they're in the bath. Society as a whole should be responsible for childrearing.

(Japanese original by Hideho Furihata, Satsumasendai Local Bureau)

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