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Chinese 'Web addicts' get boot camp, therapy

Owen Fletcher | July 10, 2009
A Beijing treatment base aims to wean kids off online games

Students and parents at a group discussion at the Internet addiction treatment base in Beijing's suburbs.

BEIJING, 10 JULY 2009 - 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.


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