VILNIUS - After 10 hours of playing games on a computer, Julius' eyes are red. His face is pale. Although it is warm and stuffy in the Internet cafe on Pylimo Street, the schoolboy wears a big coat and a woolly hat. His short legs hardly touch the ground, but the eight-year-old boy is already an expert in shooting dead his virtual combatants.
Like many other adolescent customers, Julius only stops playing when his money runs out. In order to carry on Julius goes to the train station and scrounges money from travelers. When asked if his parents know where he spends his time, the boy gets unsettled and looks away. Member of staff Jolanda Platovaite knows the answer: "His mother sometimes comes here and tells us to send him to school. But she has her own problems," says the 27-year-old student.
Every day Platovaite witnesses that many lonesome kids 's from every social background 's gamble away their time and money in her internet cafe. While Western European countries have been facing the problem of excessive use of computers among teenagers for quite some time now, it is still a relatively new problem for emerging Lithuania.
Internet cafes have sprung up like mushrooms while more and more children possess their own computer and internet access.
Darius Dirzys is well aware of the problem. The addiction psychiatrist from the Vilnius Center for Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis has routinely dealt with computer-addicted kids. "It starts with a lack of attention. Today, parents often have no time for their children as they are too busy with their own business. They don't realize when their kids play unremittingly. The children are usually not addicted at that point, but are in danger of becoming so," Dirzys says.
On Pylimo Street, the internet cafe closes at 11:30 p.m., meaning at least no one can stay there overnight. However, Vilnius provides sufficient facilities to play until the sun rises. In a 24-hour internet cafe on Jasinsko Street many seats in front of the computers are occupied early on a Sunday morning.
Out on the street, partygoers return from the clubs in Old Town. Within the corner house, on the shaded first floor, boys are still glued to the computers. Electronic music blares out of the speakers. The young customers merely communicate with each other in short, incisive fragments of speech. In the middle of the room a young boy lies in his chair. His head is slumped over the edge of the back of his seat, his neck muscles obviously too weak to keep it straight. Coruscant explosions on the screen keep the kid awake. He responds with sustained fire. When another boy interrupts him, the kid seems startled 's as if he just returned from another world.
Psychologist Darius Dirzys is not surprised. "Go to a casino and have a look at addicted people there. They show exactly the same behavior patterns. Computer addiction can medically be compared to drug addiction or gambling," he says.
The doctor explains the three main symptoms children show when they suffer from computer addiction: "First of all, they play every day and every night and have no other interests besides their computers. Secondly, they suffer from sleep and eating disorders as they just sleep for five hours per week and have no regular meals. Finally, they discontinue their social life," he says.
"Addicted kids quit talking to their parents or friends and no longer pursue other hobbies. Their whole life is focused on the computer. If they are forced to leave the computer, they get depressed."
This year, Dirzys treated five boys that suffered from computer addiction. The patients were all aged between 14 and 18 years. According to Dirzys, some of them merely showed the symptoms described above. In such cases, ambulant treatment is often sufficient and the kids have a good chance to get back on track.
However, in two cases, the kids had reached the next, more dangerous stage 's neurological disorders: "Their pupils were large and did not respond to any luminous stimulus. Furthermore, their heads and hands shook and those boys couldn't stop it. I had to transfer them to the psychiatry department," Dirzys says thoughtfully. The young doctor poses some awkward legal questions: "How can it be that our children are able to stay in those internet cafes overnight? Why don't we have a rule that restricts access to the cafes at least for underage people?"
Rimante Salaseviciute is trying to come up with answers to these questions. The children's' rights ombudswoman of the Republic of Lithuania has found a task group that will take measures to prevent more kids from suffering computer addiction. The task group is made up of several ministries, the police and psychologists. After several months of evaluating the problem, Salaseviciute came up with the group's initial findings: "We know that many internet cafes are crowded with kids. Public Internet access is one major source of concern. We need to find a way to restrict the business hours for children," she says.
Furthermore, the task group plans to start several campaigns to inform children, parents and teachers of the problem. The ombudswoman is convinced: "Many parents suppose that their children are not doing anything wrong when they sit in front of their computer for hours. They haven't even heard about a problem called computer addiction. Hence, the estimated number of unreported cases is rather high."
Eight months ago, the Ministry of Education and Science, in cooperation with the telecommunication company Bite Lithuania, initiated the program "Safer Internet." It was designed to inform and protect Lithuanian youth against illegal and harmful content on the Internet. The program also warns of excessive on-line gaming.
Starting on Dec. 14, policemen, social pedagogues and volunteers will go through internet cafes in Vilnius for two weeks. They will watch out for kids who are truant and escort them to school. The initiative is supposed to both highlight and start tackling the dangers of computer addiction.
The chance of success for these measures, however, appears rather low. In the internet cafe on Pylimo Street, the police has showed up in the past and picked up kids like Julius. But it is never long before they come back and hurl themselves once again into a virtual world.