In China, Stern Treatment For Young Internet 'Addicts'

A 12-year-old boy is treated with a series of low-voltage shocks in a therapy that doctors at an Internet addiction clinic in China say helps patients sleep better.
A 12-year-old boy is treated with a series of low-voltage shocks in a therapy that doctors at an Internet addiction clinic in China say helps patients sleep better. (By Greg Baker -- Associated Press)

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By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 22, 2007

DAXING, China -- Sun Jiting spends his days locked behind metal bars in this military-run installation, put there by his parents. The 17-year-old high school student is not allowed to communicate with friends back home, and his only companions are psychologists, nurses and other patients. Each morning at 6:30, he is jolted awake by a soldier in fatigues shouting, "This is for your own good!"

Sun's offense: Internet addiction.

Alarmed by a survey that found that nearly 14 percent of teens in China are vulnerable to becoming addicted to the Internet, the Chinese government has launched a nationwide campaign to stamp out what the Communist Youth League calls "a grave social problem" that threatens the nation.

Few countries have been as effective historically in fighting drug and alcohol addiction as China, which has been lauded for its successes, as well as criticized for harsh techniques.

Now the country is turning its attention to fighting another, supposed addiction -- one that has been blamed in the state-run media for a murder over virtual property earned in an online game, for a string of suicides and for the failure of youths in their studies.

The Chinese government in recent months has joined South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam in taking measures to try to limit the time teens spend online. It has passed regulations banning youths from Internet cafes and has implemented control programs that kick teens off networked games after five hours.

There's a global controversy over whether heavy Internet use should be defined as a mental disorder, with some psychologists, including a handful in the United States, arguing that it should be. Backers of the notion say the addiction can be crippling, leading people to neglect work, school and social lives.

But no country has gone quite as far as China in embracing the theory and mounting a public crusade against Internet addiction. To skeptics, the campaign dovetails a bit too nicely with China's broader effort to control what its citizens can see on the Internet. The Communist government runs a massive program that limits Web access, censors sites and seeks to control online political dissent. Internet companies like Google have come under heavy criticism abroad for going along with China's demands.

In the Internet-addiction campaign, the government is helping to fund eight in-patient rehabilitation clinics across the country.

The clinic in Daxing, a suburb of Beijing, the capital, is the oldest and largest, with 60 patients on a normal day and as many as 280 during peak periods. Few of the patients, who range in age from 12 to 24, are here willingly. Most have been forced to come by their parents, who are paying upward of $1,300 a month -- about 10 times the average salary in China -- for the treatment.

Led by Tao Ran, a military researcher who built his career by treating heroin addicts, the clinic uses a tough-love approach that includes counseling, military discipline, drugs, hypnosis and mild electric shocks.

Tao said the clinic is based on the idea that there are many similarities between his current patients and those he had in the past.


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