Through Monday, China's State Council is accepting public suggestions and feedback on its amendments to a draft law on Internet protection for minors, in which the government will be banning aggressive, often-abusive treatment in so-called Internet addiction camps. According to Tao Ran, director of the country's first Internet addiction treatment clinic under a military hospital in Beijing, Internet addiction is a massive problem in China, home to 200 million online users aged between 15 and 35. The National People's Congress has estimated that 10 percent of Internet users in China under 18 are, by definition, physically "addicted."
Since officially recognizing Internet addiction as a mental disorder in 2008, Chinese rehabilitation camps designed to treat online addiction have opened across the country. The Fourth Hospital in Linyi, Shandong Province, and its deputy head Yang Yongxin are the most well-known among young Net users and their parents.
Yang practiced electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for a specialized treatment which initially was embraced by desperate parents and society as a whole, but was eventually outlawed by the Chinese Ministry of Health in 2009. Yang then used another method, low-frequency pulse therapy, which former patients claimed was even more painful than electricity.
Other camps adopted crude military-style disciplinary methods, which were reported by young patients as "abusive" and even "violent." In 2009, a 15-year-old boy was beaten to death by his overseers in an Internet rehab camp in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region; in 2014, a 19-year-old girl died in Zhengzhou, Henan Province after being beaten and kicked by several drillmasters at her Net rehab facility.
A counselor surnamed Liao from a military-style rehab camp in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, denied that any abuse has ever occurred in their camp but admitted that drillmasters intensify physical training to punish those teens who refuse to submit.
"Youngsters who break rules or refuse to change their minds and behavior will be asked to stand at attention, run or carry tires," he told the Global Times.
A young man plays video games against an ad for a popular online game at an Internet cafe.
Similar to prison
Nearly 90 percent of patients treated at Liao's camp are 14 or 15 years of age and obsessed with computer games. Normally they must live on-site for a period of six months to one year at a cost 25,800 yuan ($3,761) for the first six months and 2,000 yuan for each month after that. Every student is personally monitored by a teacher 24 hours per day, 7 days a week, similar to a prison or military barrack.
"Parents don't need to worry if their children will flee from our camp to go surf the Internet," Liao said. "A teacher follows every child wherever he or she goes, even to the toilet. At night, four or five children share a room, along with a teacher and a drillmaster, to maintain order."
According to Liao, drillmasters at their camp are retired soldiers who once served in the People's Liberation Army. Their teachers all graduated from universities or colleges and have teaching certification. Students attend four classes every morning and four in the afternoon, followed by a self-study period in the evening.
Unlike a normal school, however, morning sessions follow the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) "quasi-ritualized therapeutic sessions" method, where they must make self-criticisms and group-criticism of their behavior and attitudes. Teenage addicts at the camp also receive one-to-one and group psychological therapy with counselors holding professional certifications.
But psychologist Wan Lizhu from the Ruiling Consulting Center in Shanghai, who for the past decade has helped adolescents out of Internet overuse, believes that Internet camps bring more harm than benefits. "Once I met an adolescent who refused to return to such a camp in Guangdong Province. He was so depressed and helpless in that environment that he almost had a mental breakdown."
Wan told the Global Times that many Internet camps use violence to intimidate teenagers; some have reportedly being whipped with a lash and others locked in pitch-black solitary confinement cells. Weak-willed children might be frightened into quitting the Internet in order not to be sent back to the camp, but stubborn or aggressive children instead tend to develop a deep hatred toward their parents and authorities and use their time in isolation to plot their revenge.
In September, Chen Xinran, a 16-year-old girl from Heilongjiang Province, fled her rehab camp and returned home, where she bound her mother to a chair for eight days and constantly beat her with her fists. During the tragic ordeal her mother was starved to death.
"Teenage Internet addicts are rebellious and sensitive. They derive their fun from the cyber-world and think it's an easy way to escape from school and home pressures," Wan said, adding that parents should pay more attention to their children's mental growth instead of focusing only on their studies.
"Today many Chinese grandparents are the primary caregivers for children; parents are only breadwinners in their children's eyes. As a result, children feel alienated from their own parents. By the time that behavioral problems develop, it's often too late for parents to step in," Wan said.
An Internet rehab center in Jinan, Shandong Province, reportedly has physically abused its teenage attendees and hence was suspended from operation in October, 2016.
Afraid of their own children
According to Peng Ruilin, a Shanghai-based psychologist of 20 years who has helped children quit the Internet, many parents feel "forced" into sending their teenage children to such camps out of sheer despair and desperation. "A father from Shandong Province told me that once he spent the whole night in his car; he didn't dare go back home because he was physically afraid of being attacked by his computer-addict son."
Such parents regard rehab camps as the last chance to cure their children, but Peng says their first mistake is not probing the causes behind their children's addiction. According to many of the families who have sought for Peng's help, the children couldn't concentrate in class or perform poorly in exams; the more pressure they placed on themselves to do well, the harder school became. To relieve this stress, many turned to computer games or the online world.
"Society blames children who are obsessed with the Internet, but I feel they deserve sympathy. They are just children who know no proper way to adjust emotionally, yet they receive little understanding or empathy from their own parents."
Peng told the Global Times that he has spent many years exploring the interests of adolescents at his center and tries to help them develop a proper attitude toward life. Peng also organizes salons and speeches to teach concerned parents how to maintain healthy parent-child relations and build mutual understanding and respect. This, he feels, is far more effective than rehab camps or military methods of discipline.
Students receive a group punishment during a military-style close-order drill at an Internet addiction rehab center in Beijing.
A boy who was addicted to the Internet has his brain scanned for research purposes at an addiction treatment center in Beijing. Photos: CFP
A mother surnamed Ma from Heilongjiang Province told the Global Times that the courses at Peng's center have been rewarding. "My son has become polite and mild after being treated here for eight months. He has also started to talk with his father again."
When her 17-year-old son first refused to go to school and insisted on staying at home to play on the computer all day, Ma expected he would have no bright future. She dragged him to a local mental hospital, where doctors prescribed him drugs which they claimed could cure his Internet addiction. Her son refused to take his medication, family relations became strained and eventually her son began physically beating Ma whenever she attempted to scold him.
Ma took time off from her job to bring her son to Shanghai on the pretext of getting an eye exam. Once here, she enrolled him in Peng's clinic. They rent an apartment near the center and she accompanies him to all his daily sessions. "My son used to think other students would mock and bully him. I hope he will improve the ability of emotional self-regulation and learn to face and solve problems instead of escaping from the real life."
Ma admits that she simply couldn't understand children's fascination with computers and gaming, but she also says that this generational disconnect could in fact be the source of her strained relationship with her son. She hopes that attending counseling sessions with him will also open her eyes to the real problem behind his addiction. "Fortunately we are on the right track."