Teenagers in South Korea are increasingly being exposed to online gambling, and the government and police are working to prevent a further rise in teen gambling addictions.
However, a shortfall in medical support to prevent or treat teenagers' addiction has come under the limelight as the National Center for Youth Internet Addiction Treatment serves as the only facility that runs rehab programs for online gambling addictions in Korea.
When one is admitted to the state-run rehab camp, they must give up their smartphones and any electronic devices that give them internet access. The camp lasts for 11 nights and 12 days and there, young people learn about the dangers of gambling, while learning to play musical instruments, basketball or ping pong.
“Twelve days probably sounds like an extremely short period of time, but to these teenagers, it’s extremely long,” Shim Yong-chool, director of the National Center for Youth Internet Addiction Treatment, told The Korea Herald.
According to Shim, some 50 teenagers have been through the rehab program. Among the 17 teens recently admitted to the 12-day rehab camp, five decided to quit before the camp ended.
The center, run by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, began to operate rehabilitation camps for the first time this year to counter a rise in online gambling addiction. It first opened its doors in 2015 to counter internet addiction in general.
“Every day is a battle for them because they are put in an environment where they must persevere and resist their urges,” Shim said.
The steep rise in the number of adolescents vulnerable to online gambling addiction highlights the need to strengthen the nation’s medical capacity.
According to recent data presented by the Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service in October, the number of teenagers receiving medical treatment for their gambling addiction surged by 75 percent in four years, from 65 in 2018 to 114 in 2022. Just this year, from January to August, more than 110 teen gambling addicts have sought medical help.
During the National Police Agency’s special crackdown on online gambling from Sept. 25 to Nov. 10, 39 out of the 353 arrested were juveniles.
Meanwhile, the Gender Equality and Family Ministry’s 2023 habit diagnosis survey on teens’ internet and smartphone usage showed that 28,838 teens were at risk of online gambling.
“It’s easy for teenagers to become addicted to online gambling because they are familiar with the digital environment,” said Lee Hae-kook, a professor from the Catholic University of Korea College of Medicine's Department of Psychiatry. “Using digital devices from an early age and having fast internet access available can be considered some of the factors that have contributed to the rise in teenagers’ addictions to online gambling.”
Another mental health expert pointed out that the role of the facility is limited, given that it is not affiliated with a medical association.
“Addictions can last for a lifetime, but for teenagers, it can become an even bigger problem in terms of their neurological development, even if it lasts just for six months,” said Lee Byung-chul, a professor from Hallym University College of Medicine's Department of Neurology. “The government needs to start funding systems that connect schools, youth facilities and mental health institutions to provide support for teenagers struggling with online gambling addictions.”