While we are watching and cheering for our country’s teams in elite winter sports, during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there is an epidemic of Video Gaming Addiction in South Korea, stemming from the very competitive eSports arena that you may not be aware of. And it is becoming a widespread and popular form of gaming in North America, Europe, and China, as well. This is something we want to be paying closer attention to. While the Olympics will come to an end on February 25th and then return again in another four years, eSports is here to stay.

eSports (also known as electronic sports) is an organized, multi-player video game competition held between professional players with real-time strategy, fighting, and first-person shooting in an online battle arena. It takes place with live broadcasts and large prize money to the competitors. This was played largely between amateurs until the late 2000’s when participation by professional gamers and spectators saw a huge surge in its popularity. There are still amateur players investing their time and money in playing eSports games, however game developers now design these games geared towards the professional eSport subculture. The two largest gamer stars, Jung Myung-hoon and Yo Hwan-lim earn close to $400,000 a year in winnings and are watched by millions of fans. Sounds exciting, right?

Here is the problem, and what has created the crisis in South Korea – at least 10% of children between the ages of 10 and 19 are now addicted to online gaming. That’s about 680,000 children – a staggering number! These gaming addicts are spending 7 to 20 hours a day playing video games.  And many of them are worshiping the top-winning eSports competitors like they are rock stars. Much like the young person who idolizes their baseball, football, or hockey hero and then eats and breathes hockey, hoping to one day reach the MLB, NFL or NHL as professional players, some video gamers in South Korea are dropping out of school and spending upwards to 88 hours per week, inside tiny cubicles at internet cafés, training and hoping to become the next big eSports star. Many are suffering with sleep deprivation, weight loss, mood swings, and sometimes seizures, and many have repetitive strain injuries and deformed muscles from hours spent pointing and clicking. 

The Korean government recognizes the negative impact and epidemic of this dependency, not just with eSports, but with all forms of online video gaming. Ninety percent of addiction cases in South Korea are for online gaming. In lieu of this enormous need, the government has provided a great many resources across their country, and now have the largest number of addiction rehabilitation centers in the world. They also implemented the “Cinderella Law” as early as 2011 to prevent children under the age of 16 from playing online games between midnight and 6:00 am. Sadly, not much has changed since then; kids, teens, and adolescents are still finding ways to continue playing, resulting in much lost potential for their futures.

Parents beware. Let’s take this example as a reminder and a warning that our children here in North America are also vulnerable to this kind of epidemic in gaming addiction. The World Health Organization has also recognized this and are establishing Video Gaming Addiction as a mental health disorder in 2018. Gambling Addiction therapists are now being trained and providing treatment services for Video Gaming Addicts. I have written a book called Seeing Through the Cracks which shares my son’s story with gaming addiction, and I am now speaking publicly at schools and mental health events to help educate. There is a movement for both awareness and treatment, and we must be diligent as parents to learn as much as we can, so that we can heed warning of this problem in South Korea. Parental guidance, setting limits for gaming time, and following through with consequences is essential in preventing video gaming addiction. We can momentarily look away to enjoy the Olympic athletes, but we must also keep one eye on our vulnerable and impressionable youth here at home.