KOREA: Internet creates haves and have-nots

Elderly, poor and lower educated have less access to information, services

The Korea Herald
Tuesday, April 6, 2004

By Iris Moon

On a balmy spring day, there are few kids playing outside a small apartment complex near Sinchon in Seoul. Inside an apartment on the 16th floor, Hwang Chan-il, 10, and his brother Chan-eung, 12, are playing the computer game Starcraft in their living room.

Chan-il, a sixth grader at Changjo Elementary school, doesn't know how to type yet, but he's played games on the computer ever since the family bought it four years ago. Chan-eung and his older sister, Gui-hui, 14, both middle school students, often use the Internet to do homework.

"Usually, they ask us to do research on the Internet, or I look up English words. I used to use an encyclopedia but now I just find everything on the Internet," said Gui-hui.

Asked if there was anyone at their schools who didn't know how to use the Internet, they all laughed.

"People would call you a ??wangtta' if you didn't know how to use the computer," said Chan-il, the youngest, referring to the Korean word for "loser."

"Kids wouldn't believe you if you told them you didn't know how to use the Internet," said his older sister.

From education to shopping, an increasing portion of Koreans' daily activities and transactions take place online. The Internet has become so important that the government considers it the right of all Korean citizens to have access to information technology.

While this lifestyle change is part of the fruitful result of the Korean government's measures to increase the level of informatization, there is a growing discrepancy between those who have access to information technology and those who do not. And although more people are learning to use the technology, the lifestyle differences between those who still do not have digital access and those who do are becoming increasingly apparent.

According to the Korea Agency for Digital Opportunity and Promotion, a government-run agency, older Koreans, poorer families and those with lower levels of education represent the core groups with fewer digital opportunities. For example, the agency reported that in 2002, only 5.1 percent of middle school graduates (excluding those currently in school) reported using the Internet, compared to 80 percent of college graduates.

Actual numbers of disadvantaged Internet users have been decreasing steadily, particularly through the government's efforts to increase information technology education across all sectors of society. From 1998 to 2001, Internet users over 50 increased from 1.2 percent to 20.7 percent, while users earning less than 1 million won a month increased from 5 percent to 36 percent in the same period. According to its 2006 E-Korea Vision plan, the government plans by next year for "every household to be equipped with universal access to the broadband Internet, irrespective of income, age or region. Every citizen will be able to enjoy a culturally enriched life as a result of high-quality digital content delivered by digital television and the Internet."

The government's efforts reveal how important access to digital information has become to Koreans. On a larger scale, the increasing permeation of Internet usage represents a positive social change. Not only has the Web helped make government agencies more transparent and public-oriented, it has also created more convenient and comfortable lifestyles.

In her leisure time, Gui-hui reads romance novels by online authors like Guiyeoni on the Internet. At her middle school affiliated with Ewha Womans University, each classroom is equipped with at least one computer with access to the Internet. Her mother, Chung Young-soon, 38, writes e-mail to her husband and children and logs onto her children's school's Web sites to see how they are doing at school. The family no longer gets papers delivered to the apartment; both parents read newspapers on the Internet.

"Life is just a lot easier with the Internet. When I am at work, I can do everything online, like anything from banking to getting movie tickets," said Hwang In-ju, the children's father. Hwang works at Samsung Electronics. His children and wife first learned how to use computers through courses offered by the company.

When employment, public services, financial transactions and education can all be found online, those who don't have access to these necessities are stripped of equal opportunities. Not having access to a computer may not only deprive a person of these basic rights, but as Chan-il said, may deem one a "loser."

Beyond the basic digital gap, a "second-level" digital divide also exists. Namely, that although disadvantaged groups may have basic computer skills, their level of expertise is far lower compared to their better-educated or younger counterparts.

According to a 2003 KADO survey, a much higher percentage of teenagers, those in their 20s, professionals and students answered that they used the Internet to "find information needed for daily activities and for work," compared to the national average of 28.5 percent. Only 8.6 percent of Koreans over 50 and 4.6 percent of middle school graduates had received formal Internet education in 2003.

The digital divide notwithstanding, Korea's booming Internet culture has created other problems. Besides computer viruses, spam and pornography, the widespread use of the Internet has created an inactive population that sits for hours in front of a computer screen. Obesity and Internet addiction have become increasing concerns among Korean parents worried that their children are spending too much time on the computer. Gui-hui recounted the story of how one of her friends, during vacation, would spend from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. surfing the Web.

"She would fall asleep at 11 and then wake up at 11 a.m. and spend another whole day online," she said.

Chung noticed that her children's habits changed after spending so much time online. She restricts the amount of time they can spend on the computer to one hour a day.

"Before we had the computer, the kids would always go outside to play, read comic books or watch television. But now they just stay at home and don't meet with friends," she said.

Chan-eung shot back, "It's not that we don't want to go outside and play - it's just our friends don't want to come out."

Despite these issues, the Internet continues to be a growing part of Koreans' daily lives. The government hopes that through better policies and education, the digital divide will be completely eradicated in the next couple of years.

However, some people just don't want to join the digital revolution. Hwang Soo-ja, 64, the children's great-aunt and Bible study teacher, stubbornly resists moving her life online. Although she's taken three months of Internet education classes at the Nowon-gu Office and her 79-year-old sister regularly surfs the Web to download music and write e-mail, she sees no point in using the Internet.

"I know it's good that older people are using it to find information, but it's just not necessary to my life," she said over the telephone. She said the classes were easy and said that given a week, she could master the Internet. Although she considered writing out her Bible study notes on a Word program, she chooses instead to write everything out by hand.

"If I had a computer, I guess it would be good. I could get some more information, but I don't think that I really need it."

On the other hand, her nephew In-ju wishes she would use the Internet more often.

"She's taken classes before but doesn't really want to use it. But I think if she decided to use it, it would make her life a lot easier."