"Of course information technology (IT) is important. But at the same time there are negative aspects and it's important to strike a balance."
Writing in Shukan Shincho (Oct 29) Dr Susumu Higuchi notes that the education ministry last summer issued an advisory that junior high school students would be permitted to carry their smartphones to school.
Higuchi, who heads the Kurihama Medical and Addiction Center in Kanagawa Prefecture, concedes that their having a phone is helpful for parents to know their children's whereabouts. But he's got a problem with the ministry's action because the potential demerits of phone use were not touched upon.
Children's addiction to the internet has been a growing problem, with implications for their physical health and social behavior. For those severely affected, a natural return is unlikely, making some form of intervention necessary.
In 2011 Higuchi's facility, located in Yokosuka City, became the first of its kind in Japan to treat internet dependence on an outpatient basis.
Although originally established to treat people for alcoholism, about 1,500 patients a year receive treatment for internet addition, making it the largest facility of its kind in the country.
The center was moved to begin treating internet addiction after a survey by the health ministry in 2008 estimated that Japan had some 2.75 million addicts -- roughly equivalent to the population of Osaka.
Most surprising, Higuchi writes, is that about 70% of patients were minors, with half in middle and high school and the remaining half in primary school -- with a few as young as 2nd grade.
Many of the minors used their smartphones to play online games late into the night, virtually reversing their nights and days. In many cases, medical intervention was requested by parents after their child flew into a rage after confiscating the phone or attempting to limit its use. Some children used their parents' credit card to order games or pay for updates. In one extreme case, in six months the charges came to 2 million yen.
A 2017 survey by the health ministry found that smartphone dependence been growing, with 12.5% of middle school and 16.0% of high school students found to be addicted -- a 1.8-fold increase over the survey of five years earlier. Those suffering from addition might show symptoms of sleep deprivation, insecurity and falling grades at school. Lack of physical activity can even lead to a decrease in bone density.
Research of addicted gamers indicates that functioning in the brain's frontal lobe -- the section responsible for controlling reason and logic -- will decline. Such young people have been found to have a lower than average volume of gray matter in their frontal lobes than other children of the same age. Numerous studies have showed this condition can impact on the limbic system, which controls desire and emotions, and makes it more difficult for such children to be dealt with using normal disciplinary measures at home or in school.
At the camp conducted at Higuchi's facility, children who go for counseling spend 8 nights and 9 days completely disengaged from the internet, climbing the local hills, fishing or looking at the stars at night. Admission to the hospital -- reserved for patients believed to most susceptible to a relapse into their former habits -- generally lasts for two months.
Ultimately, writes Higuchi, it's important to be proactive. In South Korea, for example, children under 16 are banned from online games between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m. Minors are also banned from entering net cafes during the hours’ from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
The sheer growth in numbers makes the situation analogous to trying to holding back a bursting dike. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications found that compared to ownership by 20.5% in the six to 12 year age group in 2014, the figure had nearly doubled to 37.2% by 2019. And about 80% of middle and high school students owned smartphones, which they utilized online an average of 250 minutes (over 4 hours) per day.
Dr Higuchi is concerned that the dropping of restrictions on carrying smartphones to school may result in more addiction. If the ministry won't lay down the law, can the schools, at least, be enlisted to restrict the kids' use?
"If more kids have phones, I worry cases of dependence can only get worse. It worries me," Higuchi concludes.© Japan Today