The Koreas

South Korea’s Smartphone Obsession

South Korea is overdue for a discussion on the impact smartphones have on health and society.

South Korea’s Smartphone Obsession
Credit: Flickr/ Johnny Silvercloud

When news came that 72 percent of South Korean children now own their first smartphone by the time they turn 12, most people in the country shrugged and carried on. With a world-leading 88 percent of adults owning smartphones and 93 percent of the population having access to the internet, technology has become like electricity and water. Yet few South Koreans seem concerned about the effects such rapid adoption and integration could be having.

Five years ago, when I left Seoul to return to New Hampshire for graduate school, almost no one had a smartphone, especially students. The old flip phones remained ubiquitous and my biggest problem was identifying students who texted underneath their desks during class, an infrequent occurrence at the elite high school where I taught. Students talked more than they texted.

By the time I returned in 2015, the world had changed. As soon as my plane landed at Incheon, I saw people whipping out smartphones to access SNS as they anxiously unbuckled and readied to exit. On public transportation, nearly every head hovered over smartphone screens displaying everything from Korean dramas and Premier League matches to online calculus classes and omnipresent messaging apps.

Having foregone a smartphone back in the States for the sake of a completed graduate thesis, I initially went phoneless in Seoul until a Korean friend, who I asked to help me with a visit to the mobile store, told me, “Oh, you have to get a smartphone or you’ll be living in a different world.” Reluctantly, I signed a two-year contract for $50 a month that included a new promotional Samsung smartphone, and joined the mesmerized masses.

By now, researchers Sherry Turkle at MIT and Jean Twenge at San Diego State University have provided detailed empirical research regarding teenagers and technology, with titles from Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation to Generation Me and Twenge’s recently published iGen. All of their research paints a problematic portrait of the distracted, isolated, and narcissistic teenager, perpetually tethered to their device.

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Twenge’s most recent research illustrates sharp shifts in American teen behavior — mostly beginning in 2012 — which indicates that driving, working, dating, and in-person socializing are passé. (In South Korea, very few teens drive or work, and dating is considered a distraction by many adults.) Twenge writes that today’s teens are routinely “on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed.” That is, of course, when they’re not at school, which is where nearly all South Korean teens spend their time (if they’re not suffering at private institutes known as hagwon).

When I first started my new job teaching at a South Korean boarding school in 2015, I surprisingly found colleagues — not students — obsessed with their smartphones. On the first day, as I visited several offices to introduce myself, I noticed some teachers staring into and tapping their smartphones like people on the subway. Some never looked up. In the hallways, I would pass teachers who walked along gazing into their devices. At the school’s splendorous opening ceremony, when giddy and proud freshmen marched into the gymnasium sporting crisp, new uniforms, with delighted families looking on, I saw some teachers scrolling away on their phones right in plain sight.

Similarly, at the graduation ceremony, as the principal spoke to the graduates and their proud families, teachers seated on the stage behind him stared and scrolled.

Outside school, from Buddhist temple and movie theater to wedding hall and driver’s seat, nowhere is spared the oblivious, smartphone-staring adult. Nevertheless, Koreans in general seem unconcerned with the impacts these devices are having on adults’ behavior and health.

Instead, the focus is on the kids. For years South Korea has had rehabs for youth addicted to computer games, the internet, and digital devices. A 2016 paper, citing government data, reports that 25.5 percent of children are now addicted to smartphones versus 8.9 percent of adults. Medical professionals report increasing cases of Video Display Terminal (VDT) Syndrome, which results from all the hovering and slouching that devices encourage, leading to neck and back pain. The Ministry of Education reports that more than 70 percent of tenth graders have eyesight problems, something doctors attribute to xerophthalmia, or dry eyes, which results from prolonged staring into screens without blinking.

Psychological ills march right along with the physical. Cyberbullying is a growing problem — some 40 percent of teens have experienced it. Additionally, teens report decreased concentration and rising anxiety. Depression, a largely taboo topic in South Korea, where suicide rates are the highest in the OECD, remains hard to pin down but has surely not decreased if data on teen happiness can be extrapolated: 2016 data show that South Korean students are the unhappiest in the OECD and that incidents of suicidal thoughts have increased across the board from elementary to high school students.

I certainly have seen the unhappy, overstressed, sleep-deprived teenagers in my classroom — unfortunately it’s not so uncommon. Here kids rise around 7 a.m. and have to check in at the dorm’s nightly 11:40 roll call; lights out is at 1 and is extended to 2:50 a.m. two weeks before exams. Most kids know the phone is their worst enemy but Facebook and SNS beckon. I’ve had to strictly ban the presence of smartphones in classes after repeated disruptions. I confiscated one the other day after a student forgot. Most kids seem to get it after I showed them research that equates device addiction to heroin addiction and shows how engineers and neuroscientists juice apps to make them addictive. Declining grades usually sound the loudest alarm.

I deliberately use my own phone sparingly; students never see me hovering or hunched. But all around them adults model different behavior, the phone never far away. It’s the old, “do as I say not as I do” problem. Now, when I see a colleague arrive first thing in the morning only to sit still as a statue at her desk for 30 minutes, gazing into her phone, I wonder when the adults will start worrying about their own behaviors.

John M. Rodgers has been living in South Korea for more than a decade. He has contributed to the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Huffington Post and others.