BEIJING // Teenage boys in camouflage military uniforms stand alert on a compound in southern Beijing listening to their drill sergeant bark out orders. But the boys are not preparing for a battle. They are recovering internet addicts enrolled in a course at the nation's first official net addiction rehabilitation centre in Beijing's Daxing district. The Military General Hospital is part clinic, part boot camp where children, and their parents, stay during a three-month course that mixes counselling with a strict military style discipline. The teenagers get up at 6.30am every morning and go to bed at 9.30pm.
"He loved the internet. On weekends he would spend eight to 10 hours online. But one day he said he did not want to go to school. So I brought him here," said Zhou Rui, a mother from Beijing, who enrolled her 16-year-old son on the course more than a month ago. "From Monday to Friday we learn how to communicate with each other. We also do activities together for half a day," said Mrs Zhou, who explained that the course helped to rebuild the bonds between the family that had been broken by their son's excessive internet use. "He has made great progress, it's obvious."
China has the world's largest number of internet users, at 338 million, of which an estimated 10 million teenagers are classified as addicts, according to a report from the China Internet Network Information Centre. A web addict is defined as someone who spends more than six hours online each day, playing games, in chat rooms and, increasingly, downloading pornography. While the government has set up eight rehabilitation centres, hundreds more unregulated ones have sprung up across the nation, promising parents they will cure their child's addiction. While the fees for such a course can set parents back about US$750 (Dh2,755), the fact that in many of the camps the staff are not trained to deal with belligerent teenagers means that force too often comes into play.
Earlier this month a 15-year-old boy was found dead 10 hours after his parents sent him to such a camp in Nanning, in southern China. And last week a 14-year-old boy was taken to hospital with kidney failure after reportedly being severely beaten in a rehabilitation centre, while police said they had detained a man in connection with another severely injured boy at a camp. Photos of Deng Senshan, the boy who was killed, showed bruising to his face and his limbs covered in blood. His classmates said he was beaten by staff at the training camp because he would not run fast enough during a drill. Deng was found vomiting after being placed in solitary confinement and was taken to a clinic, where he died on August 2.
"It is like fake education, these schools," Li Jian, Deng's uncle, said in a telephone interview. "He was a good boy. He was just addicted to the internet. We wanted him to amount to something in the future so we sent him to that school. "We asked them if there would be any physical discipline and they said there wouldn't be. In less than a day he was dead." An autopsy confirmed Deng was beaten to death and police have detained four people in connection with his death.
The recent incidents have heightened calls for internet addiction to be classified as a mental illness, which would make China the first nation to recognise the condition and, according to doctors, ensure that all rehabilitation centres receive oversight. In July, the ministry of health banned the use of electric shock therapy after it was found that clinics in the east of China were employing such methods for discipline.
"The biggest difference is that where the boy died was a school and this is a hospital," said Dr Tao Ran, the founder of the Daxing addiction-treatment centre. Dr Tao says he uses professional psychiatry and counselling to treat his patients while the other clinics train teenagers to be soldiers. His hospital uses medicine first and then training, and he says he has a 70 per cent success rate. "Schools like that one where the boy died see his addiction as a behavioural problem. They use physical discipline to try to help the children. We see internet addiction as an illness."
In 2007, Dr Tao published research papers claiming internet addiction was a mental disorder. He says students brought to the clinic often have a range of symptoms akin to those of mental disorders. They are often angry, depressed and suffer from insomnia. Dr Tao, a trained physician and former colonel, prescribes antidepressants and other psychiatric medicines to calm his patients and then uses military training to help to instil discipline and time-management skills.
"If it is defined as a mental illness it means treatment will be organised and therapy will be standardised," Dr Tao said. He is calling for more government funding and supervision. The Chinese media has linked net addiction to violent behaviour and crime. In 2004, two students were killed after falling asleep on a railway line after a 48-hour internet session. In 2005, a student murdered an online competitor in an internet game, leading experts to call net addiction the biggest problem facing Chinese youth.
Students often refuse to go to school and become angry when they are deprived of internet access. But Dr Tao says that 40 per cent of net addicts suffer from mental disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which can be treated. He says one reason web addiction is so common in China is because other mental disorders that may lead to addictions are poorly diagnosed and not recognised by parents.
"I do not know if Deng had ADHD. But I think it may have been likely," Dr Tao said. Patients who suffer from ADHD may find it difficult to obey orders. Deng's family said they suspected he had a psychological problem. But others are unconvinced that addiction is a mental problem. Some researchers claim it is the consequence of China's rapid economic and social development over the past 30 years, similar to the economic boom in Japan, where there is a long history of online addiction.
"A society that is going through a real change will have this problem in due time; it is a problem of adapting and coping," said Roseline Yong, a researcher from Hong Kong University who observes and engages with internet addicts in China and Japan by logging into chat rooms to try to wean them off the web. Ms Yong says that children face immense pressure from parents to perform in a very competitive education system and many use the internet as a form of escape.
The issue of the classification of internet addiction has become controversial in China. The Communist leadership sees internet use as a political as well as social problem. Millions of internet users, known as netizens, voice opinions of dissent online and many politically sensitive websites are accessible despite censorship. The Chinese government has taken steps to regulate the internet. Internet cafe owners must install anti-addiction software on computers and customers must provide identity cards and their real names before they can log on so that their surfing habits can be monitored by authorities.
In May, the Chinese government said it would order computer manufacturers to install "Green Dam youth escort", a government-sanctioned software that would filter violent and obscene material from every computer in China. But critics say the software will also be used to systematically block politically sensitive sites. Searches for the banned spiritual group Falun Gong and the Tiananmen Square incident, in which hundreds and possibly thousands were killed following the crackdown on 1989's pro-democracy protests, would yield no results with the software.
Thousands of internet users planned to boycott the internet on June 31, the intended day of the software's release. The government said it would delay the release following pressure from computer manufacturers and the media. "In China you don't have much freedom to express yourself. There are opportunities, but not that many. The internet becomes one of the main things that they can use," Ms Yong said.
The family of Deng Senshan are now calling for greater government regulation over internet addiction camps and also urging parents to spend more time with their children. "I want to tell other parents they should spend time with their kids. Don't make our mistake," Mr Li said. * The National