Monday, March 8, 2010

Couple neglects infant while "raising" virtual child

Korean authorities last week arrested a couple for allowing their 3-month-old daughter to starve to death while they nurtured a virtual child online. While people are quick to blame internet addiction for the death, I'm at's Child Caring blog, wondering if there's more to the story.

Kim Yoo-chul, 41, and his partner Choi Mi-sun, 25, both of whom were unemployed, immersed themselves in a role-playing game called Prius Online, where they were "raising" a perfect little girl named Anima; in real life, their daughter, who was born prematurely and never named, was left at home alone and fed once a day, when they took breaks from their 12-hour-long game-playing shifts at a neighborhood internet cafe, The Telegraph reported. After one such 12-hour shift in September, the couple came home to find their baby dead and called the police. An autopsy determined the cause of death to be prolonged malnutrition; the couple went into hiding soon after.

It's easiest to blame an obsession with the internet and online gaming -- after all, more than 70 percent of the people in South Korea are online, 96 percent of the population there considers internet access to be a fundamental right, and 83 percent of South Koreans say they feel the government has no right to regulate any of it, according to data from the BBC. Online gaming teams have corporate sponsors, and neighborhood high-speed internet cafes are open 24/7. But while a countrywide acceptance of online gaming must have played a large part, I can't help but think that there's more to the story.

According to a 2005 report in the International Journal of Nursing Studies six-week study of 50 women who had given birth to premature infants showed that the new mothers felt "self-blame, concern about the infant, reluctance to express negatives, fear of stigmatizing responses to the infant by others, and delayed joy in mothering." The reasons were largely cultural: Prematurity is stigmatized because many people there believe that negative thoughts can lead to negative consequences, and that mothers bear responsibility for the condition of their infants at birth. Pregnant women are expected to look only at "beautiful" things in order to have a beautiful child; everything the mother-to-be eats, thinks, feels, or sees is thought to influence the physical characteristics of the baby.

In the virtual world of Prius Online, players choose their careers and the friends, and are rewarded with a child for successfully passing a certain level -- a perfect child, with magical powers. The game, which used to be called Anima Online, is a 3-D Real Time Emotional Fantasy game -- that is, it's an alternate reality, one where players can be automatically and effortlessly successful.

"The couple seemed to have lost their will to live a normal life because they didn't have jobs and gave birth to a premature baby," Chung Jin-Won, a police officer, told the Yonhap News Agency in Korea. "They indulged themselves in the online game of raising a virtual character so as to escape from reality, which led to the death of their real baby." Professor Kwak Dae-kyung of Seoul's Dongguk University suggested that the couple felt that their online efforts "erased any sense of guilt they may have had for neglecting their daughter" in real life. (In speaking to reporters after his arrest, the father said that he wished the baby "hadn't got sick and that she will live well in heaven forever.")

If Prius Online hadn't been available, would the couple have sought to escape their lives in some other way? Probably. That doesn't excuse their behavior or make this news any less horrific, but it does make it make it clear that there are more problems to address than internet obsession.

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