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In South Korea, a rehab camp for Internet-addicted teenagers

Since he arrived at the camp, Yoon Yong-won had experienced recurrent nightmares. He was playing a game on his phone, and the image of the phone in his hands was so vivid. But then he woke up with a fright and stared at his hands: empty.

Yoon was in day six of a 27-day camp aimed at teenagers like him: state-certified Internet addicts.

The first day he arrived and had to turn over his devices was a day of despair. “I thought, ‘My future is pitch-black,’ ” he said over a lunch of spaghetti Bolognese and kimchi on a recent day. “I’m so frustrated. I feel like I’m being held captive.”

South Korea is the most wired country on the planet, a country where it’s entirely unremarkable for elementary school students to carry smartphones, where the cell network is so good that people livestream TV on the subway. The flip side: South Korea is grappling with a growing number of digital natives who don’t know how to live an analog life.

“The government has been promoting I.T. and these kinds of devices, so the government helped create this problem,” said Shim Yong-chool, the director of the National Center for Youth Internet Addiction Treatment camp at a converted school near Muju, in the center of the country. “Now, the government’s trying to help solve it.”

Surveys have suggested that about 10 percent of Korean teenagers are Internet addicts, and the government has tried to counter this through measures such as the “Cinderella law,” which denies access after midnight to gamers younger than 16, although many have figured out ways to get around it.

Then there are camps such as this one, offering three- or four-week courses of stress-reduction classes and wholesome activities that include hiking, rock-climbing and learning to play guitar.

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Almost 5,000 teenagers came through the camp last year, the first full year it was open. All were sent here by their parents or their teachers and were assessed for Internet addiction before arriving. Checklists include statements such as “I lie about the number of hours I spend online” and “I find it more fun to be on my phone than to be with family and friends.”

Most of the teenagers here measure in the “danger zone,” where they are obsessive about using the Internet, often cutting class as a result, and have trouble interacting with people offline. Many also become withdrawn or feel lonely, or they show aggressiveness and impulsiveness.

“We consider Internet addiction the same as other material addictions like alcohol,” Shim said in the common space of the center. A strong smell of liniment hung in the air, olfactory evidence of young muscles not used to physical activity.

Going cold turkey isn’t easy. Some teenagers have been busted for having a secret phone in their belongings, while others have attempted to break out of the camp, trying to walk or hitch-hike to the nearest town, three miles away, in search of an Internet cafe.

Yoon, an 18-year-old high school student from Pocheon, north of Seoul, ended up at this camp during his winter break because of what he did during his summer holidays: He played computer games for at least 14 hours a day. Even during the semester, he was spending more than 12 hours a day playing games or using chatting apps.

He thought it was fine. “I wasn’t getting headaches or anything,” he said. His parents, however, did not. They applied to send him to the camp during his winter break.

On day six of the camp, one group of boys — and this intake was all boys, there are separate camps for girls — was coloring pictures of animals that were meant to represent their family members. Yoon, wearing a blond curly wig reminiscent of Christina Aguilera, ate a lollipop and talked to his friends about online gaming strategies the entire time.

“Families not only cause you stress, but they can help you deal with stress, too,” said Kim Tae-joon, the instructor, as the boys characterized their parents as scorpions, gorillas or snakes.

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Down the hall, another group was trying to build towers with dry spaghetti and marshmallows. “Use your heads,” said the teacher, Sun Jin-sook, as peppy Korean pop music played — ironically through her laptop computer. “Even though it takes time, don’t give up.”

Some of the boys worked on their towers, while others just ate the marshmallows.

On the walls of the classrooms were forms the boys had filled out on their first day. “Programmer” was often listed as their desired profession, and many answered the question of why they were here with variations of “I was forced.”

“My mom told me to come here, and I don’t even get any reward for it,” said Yoon Suk-ho, a 14-year-old middle school student from Daegu. He acknowledged, however, that he might need help.

“I was actually kind of thinking that I might have a problem with my smartphone,” he said, adding that he played games on it nonstop. “When I came here and they made me hand it in, I was thinking, ‘How am I going to live without it?’ ”

But somehow, they were surviving. During breaks, the boys went out to play in the snow or sat on the warm floor playing board games such as Rummikub or card games — without a screen in sight. On the shelves were box sets of Harry Potter books and comic books on old-fashioned paper.

On their last day of the course, the campers will be assessed for addiction again. After that, they will receive periodic visits from school counselors to check up on them.

Numbers on recidivism are hard to come by — because the camp is too new, said Shim, the director.

At least while they’re here, some boys found that they could live without technology. “It’s better than I thought it would be,” said Kim Sung-min, a 14-year-old. “At home, I just used to play games. But here, we talk to each other.”

Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.

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