Inside China's Fight Against Internet Addiction

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Greg Baker / AP

Two young Internet addicts watch TV at the Beijing Military Region Central Hospital in 2005

Even though it was only a week before the Spring Festival — the most important family holiday on the Chinese calendar — Wang Hongxia was forcing her son out of the house. She took her 12-year-old from their home in the northwestern city of Xian to a secluded Beijing military compound more than 700 miles away. Like many other parents across China today, Wang felt as though she had no choice. "Things have absolutely gone out of control," said Wang, 45, almost in tears. "My son just beat and bit me again this morning after I wouldn't let him touch the computer."

With the world's largest netizen population of 300 million, China is struggling with a new plight: Internet obsession among its youth. Since the 2004 establishment of the country's first Internet Addiction Center, the military-run boot camp in Beijing where Wang took her son, more than 3,000 adolescent and young-adult patients have been treated for Internet addiction. Hundreds of similar treatment centers have mushroomed in recent years in China, joining other centers operating elsewhere in Asia and the U.S. The U.S.-based Center for Internet Addiction Recovery classifies the disorder as compulsive behavior in which "the Internet becomes the organizing principle of addicts' lives." (See pictures of the Chinese village that processes the world's electronic waste.)

Though the fledgling disorder has been widely identified, defining it in China has not been easy. Tao Ran, director of the Beijing treatment center and a colonel in the People's Liberation Army (PLA), helped come up with a strict definition of Internet addiction last fall: consecutive usage of the Web for 6 hr. a day for three straight months is addiction. The new standard, which is still pending official endorsement by the Ministry of Health, has aroused widespread skepticism in Chinese cyberspace, with many arguing that too many people could be wrongly categorized as Internet addicts under this definition.

The murky guidelines have not stopped anxious parents like Wang from dragging their children to Tao's camp, a grim, four-story building in Beijing's major military compound. Once checked in, most patients are required to stay for three months, without access to the outside world, cell phones or, of course, computers. But unlike in other similar camps, parents of patients at the Internet Addiction Center have to stay at the camp to receive "treatment" too — because, according to Tao, Internet addiction is often a result of parenting mistakes. For most families, providing this treatment to a child is already a sacrifice. The total cost for a family usually amounts to nearly $3,000 — almost as much as an average Chinese couple earns in three months. (See pictures of intense South Korean video gamers.)

Life in the treatment camp, not surprisingly, is defined by strict, semimilitary disciplines. Patients get up at 6:30 a.m. and go to bed at 9:30 p.m. Their daily schedule includes military drills, therapy sessions, reading and sports. "At first, I felt like [I was] living in hell," says 22-year-old Yang Xudong, a camp resident for two months. "But over time, it gets more comfortable and peaceful." Despite the small steps he's made, like eating a diet that consists of something other than instant noodles, the Beijing native admitted he still got upset too easily and was "afraid of people" — two signature symptoms of Internet addiction, according to Tao. "I think life in this camp has definitely calmed me down to some degree," says Yang. "But I'm far from ready to get out, since I don't know what to do with my life yet."

That lack of motivation is widely shared by the young adults at the camp, even among patients with decorated academic backgrounds. Didi, a 20-year-old college sophomore who did not disclose his full name, picked up online gaming almost as soon as he got into the prestigious Tsinghua University. He says he became so obsessed that he skipped all his classes for an entire semester and eventually received academic warnings from the school. As many as 30 students from Beida and Tsinghua — China's most storied universities — have been to the camp, says Tao, and it's becoming an increasing trend among students from other top schools. "Our kids are all very special and intelligent," says the PLA colonel. "It's only normal for people to make detours when they're young. Our mission is to help them get back on track before it's too late."

On the same afternoon that Wang Hongxia and her son arrived at the boot camp, an 18-year-old boy was ready to leave after months of strenuous training. As part of the camp's tradition, he hugged every one of his fellow patients. "It's certainly an emotional moment for the kids, as they have bound together over the months," says Tao. "And to me, it's especially rewarding to see them step out of here with all the confidence that they deserve."

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