With competition fiercer than ever before and the media constantly redefining social norms–failure seems to be a steppingstone for adulthood. It’s no wonder teens are turning to escape mechanisms to find comfort and bliss. Just like the lure of Pleasure Island for Pinocchio or the Looking Glass for Alice–today’s teens are being lured into the fantastical worlds of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) and Second Life. However, as the past has taught us, fantasy can have detrimental effects on reality.

We might squawk around the buzz of web addiction in the U.S., but it has become such a prevalent problem in countries like South Korea and China that their governments are taking serious measures to stop its rampancy. In Martin Fackler’s recent New York Times article “In Korea, a Boot Camp Cure for Web Obsession” he writes:

It has become a national issue…as users started dropping dead from exhaustion after playing online games for days on end. A growing number of students have skipped school to stay online, shockingly self-destructive behavior in this intensely competitive society…Up to 30 percent of South Koreans under 18, or about 2.4 million people, are at risk of Internet addiction…

As one of the first countries to have nationalized cheap broadband access, 90% of South Korea’s households are now avid subscribers. As a result, PC Baangs (Internet cafes), have become some of the most lucrative businesses in the country. Teens swarm to these dimly-lit cafes before, during and after school to escape reality and play games like StarCraft, EverQuest, and Warhammer. In addition, countless online auction sites have popped up, targeting teen gamers addicted to buying virtual commodities. Because of their growing popularity, several cable channels are broadcasting online gaming competitions. Just as reality TV stars have reached A-list status in the U.S., top StarCraft gamers make six-figure salaries and have celebrity status.

To fight the war on web addiction, a growing number of hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and Outward Bound-like boot camps are offering treatments. Many of these therapies stress physical activity as a means to strengthen the addicts’ bodies, weakened by sleep deprivation and sedentary lifestyles, and help them reconnect emotionally to the physical world.
So what is so addictive about these virtual realities? Playing MMORPGs and Second Life can have a therapeutic effect on players by filling emotional or psychological voids they experience in real life. These virtual worlds allow teens and adults to live fantasy lives through their alter egos, A.K.A. avatars. Players find approval, recognition and respect in their alternate realities, and form virtual relationships that are sometimes even more fulfilling than those in real life.

Although web addiction is not a national threat in the U.S. yet, it’s become a pervasive issue in recent years. In the recent Wall Street Journal article “Is This Man Cheating on His Wife,” Alexandra Alter studies a marriage, plagued by one spouse’s Second Life obsession and virtual marriage. The article states:

Nearly 40% of men and 53% of women who play online games said their virtual friends were equal to or better than their real-life friends…More than a quarter of gamers said the emotional highlight of the past week occurred in a computer world…

For those of you like me who are Second Life virgins, it seems positively ridiculous that adults would buy into this. However, upon further comprehension, it’s not so out-of-the-question. In Second Life, avatars create the world of content that they live in, and can realize their wildest dreams, despite the cards they were dealt in real life. An estimated 20 million “residents” (avatars) have virtual jobs, own property, date, marry and even sleep with each other. They attend lectures, concerts, read newspapers, and spend loads of Lindens (Second Life’s currency) on imaginary accessories.

But in the virtual Wild West, anything goes: including rioting, gang play, child pornography and until recently, gambling. Luckily, the Linden Lab saw the danger in allowing kids to participate in adult Second Life and launched one just for teens. But just because it’s a PG13 version, doesn’t mean the premise is any different. The lines between fantasy and reality are still blurry at best.

As parents, we can’t control the government, the tech corporations or the media, but we can take steps to help teens stay on the right side of the looking glass, or more aptly these days, the monitor:

  • We can monitor their online habits; know the warning signs, and how to confront them.
  • Teach them to value real intimacy, (which has sadly become the casualty of technology).
  • Initiate and encourage real-world activities and hobbies.
  • And most importantly–try to relieve their pressure instead of pile it on.