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By Sherry Zheng

Of the thousands of people crowding the streets of Tokyo, many, standing or walking, have their eyes glued to their smartphones. However, this nationwide epidemic has caused more than just the daily inconvenience of slow walkers or loss of eye contact during conversations, it has even caused the loss of lives, in more than one way.

As reported by Japan Today in the middle of last year, a 10-year old boy, having been distracted by his mobile phone screen, fell onto the train tracks before an incoming train. This fifth-grader was lucky to escape with minor injuries. However these shocking incidents are not scarce, as according to MMD Research Laboratory, 1 in 5 people admit to aruki-sumaho and having experienced injury or an accident as a result.

Image: Don LaVange/Flickr.

Image: Don LaVange (Flickr).

NTT Docomo termed this problem “aruki-sumaho” (literally, “smartphone walking”) in their print campaign in Shinjuku station. Their campaign warns more than 3.5 million commuters each day to avoid the habit and to take more notice of the danger they could inflict. However, just as the print ironically admits, culprits of aruki-sumaho probably wouldn’t even notice the warning.

In reality, aruki-sumaho is part of a much bigger problem; a nationwide screen-addiction. According to recent findings by a government-funded research led by the Ministry of Health, 518,000 teenagers are clinically considered to be ‘addicted’ to the Internet. With a great deal of technology being marketed towards the younger generation, there is growing concern for young addicts and the future of our society.

In 2007, The New York Times reported on China’s drastic measure of running Internet addiction camps to rehabilitate sufferers of the “disorder”. A “military-style boot-camp” claiming a 70% success rate aims to strengthen patients, usually male adolescents, both mentally and physically. Even in a country of 137 million Internet users, this method seemed outlandish, costing parents of the patient more than $15,000 for a year’s stay (meanwhile tuition fees for an MBA at top-tier Tsinghua University only reach up to US$10,000).

This extreme tactic is no longer something that happens “only in China”. Japan has latched onto the method with treatment centers particularly counseling the internet-addicted, and even the Ministry of Educations seriously proposing “fasting” camps that provide internet-free zones for adolescents to assist in purging them from their bad habits. Could this plan be Japan’s way out?

The issue that remains however is the diagnosis of the affected. What can be defined as clinical Internet addiction? How can you treat those who reject their addiction? In developed countries, where people of all ages wake up to newsfeeds in the morning and would admit to Internet dependence, whole nations could be considered addicted.

Sherry is a first-year PEAK student at the University of Tokyo. 

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