Chinese 'Web Addicts' Get Boot Camp, Therapy

Tao Ran, the founder of a youth rehabilitation center on a Beijing army base, has made it his mission to treat teenagers who are antisocial, doing poorly in school and are sometimes depressed.

Tao sends his "students" through a strict regimen of military drills, martial arts training, lectures and sessions with psychiatrists. Drill sergeants shout orders at the teenagers, most between 15 and 19 years old, as they march in military fatigues between activities.

But the cardinal rule for these troubled youth: no Internet. For three months, the usual length of stay.

It is Internet addiction, Tao says, that has sparked the barrage of psychological symptoms and family problems for his patients.

While experts debate whether Internet obsession is a diagnosable condition, centers like Tao's have launched programs to wean young people off of online activities that they say can lead to compulsive behavior.

"Besides eating and sleeping, these students spend each day entirely on the Internet," Tao said in an interview. "They don't even shower or wash their clothes."

Tao's patients start each day with a 6:20 a.m. wake-up call and morning exercises. They file back to the center's eight-to-a-room, bunk-bed dorms for lights-out at 9:30 p.m.

Online games are the main culprit in most Web addiction cases Tao handles. World of Warcraft and Counter-Strike rank beside Chinese role-playing games as those that hook the most patients, Tao said. Online chat programs more often hook girls, who make up a handful of Tao's current 70 patients, he said.

Parents force most of the teens to come to the center in Beijing's southern suburbs. Many are tricked into coming, sometimes in the middle of the night.

Unwelcome pressure from parents pushes many of Tao's patients toward Internet obsession, he said. That pressure is often to perform well in school. Chinese students face intense competition for acceptance to top schools as early as at the primary level. High school students often spend several grinding months preparing for China's two-day college admission test, the sole measure used by the government to determine the future of their education.

So parents must attend Tao's program as well. They must communicate better and criticize less to help pull their children back from the virtual world, Tao said. Parents attend psychiatrist sessions, basketball games, debates and other activities with their children.

Treatment of compulsive Internet use has been done more openly in China than in many other countries, said Dr. David Greenfield, director of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction in West Hartford, Connecticut.

The condition is particularly common in Asian countries including South Korea, but China appears among the hardest hit because of its huge number of Internet users, Greenfield said.

"China is leading in showing how bad this could get," he said. "Because of the sheer amount of numbers, they're sort of showing worst-case scenarios."

Among Chinese youth online, nearly one in 10 is addicted to the Internet, according to a government-sanctioned report published this year. Most of those youth also suffer from poor relations with their parents, peers and teachers, according to the report.

About one-third of China's 300 million Internet users were under 20 years old at the end of last year, according to the China Internet Network Information Center.

Internet addiction has not been formally labeled a pathology in either China or the U.S. But Greenfield argues that there is growing consensus and expects some kind of recognition in the U.S. in the next two years.

Estimates of Internet addiction rates in the U.S. run from about 3 percent to 8 percent of the population, Greenfield said.

Symptoms include an inability to cut down on Internet use and a negative physical or emotional reaction to having access removed, such as how a drug or alcohol abuser would feel if blocked from the substances, he said.

Among the other centers for Internet addiction in China is one that stirred controversy in recent months for its use of electric shock treatment. The center in eastern Shandong province has halted the treatment since it drew widespread media attention, a woman at the center surnamed Yang said by phone. At the height of the controversy, anonymous bloggers wrote about receiving the treatment and hackers defaced the center's Web site, which has since remained offline.

The shocks were meant to make patients associate a negative feeling with Internet use, according to the center. Yang declined to comment further on the treatment.

China's health ministry may soon ban shock treatment for Internet addiction, according to Tao. A health ministry spokesman said officials were researching the treatment to determine its legality.

Tao, who holds a master's degree in medicine, designed the treatment program for his own center with a group of other doctors, he said, sitting beside a small portrait of Sigmund Freud in a treatment room. The team drew on their academic studies and on foreign programs including Alcoholics Anonymous, which inspired a schedule of mutual check-ins and support that Tao sets up for families who have completed the program, he said.

Tao's course is expensive. Each month of treatment runs parents 8,400 yuan (US$1,200), more than half the monthly income for urban Chinese, according to China's statistics bureau.

But parents have been even more generous in rare cases. One father was so ecstatic over his son's improvement that he donated 200,000 yuan to the center.

Still, only about 70 percent of the teenagers are "cured," as judged by whether the parents are satisfied, Tao said.

And the others? "They do change to some degree," Tao said. "But still they go on playing games."

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