Internet addiction is becoming such a significant problem that, in China, it can actually land a young person in a prison camp where they will be forced to go cold turkey. The Chinese government has actually determined that internet addiction is a clinical condition. As a result, it has established some 400 such camps across the country.
The camps, to which young Chinese are brought – usually by their parents and not on a voluntary basis – are grim and bleak and run like military training schools. The rehabilitation programs can last three of four months and, during that time, the inmates – or patients, live in bare cells that contain nothing more than two bunks. These cells are monitored by cameras. They spend their days doing physical exercise, attending counseling sessions and undergoing treatment and evaluation.
Most, although by no means all, of the unwilling attendees at the camps are teenage boys. Some of them admitted to spending literally hundreds of hours playing online games, such as World of Warcraft. As a result, these young people had been suspended from school or had even dropped out altogether. They had become obsessed with the virtual world and had chosen to spend more time there than in the real one. The Chinese view this internet addiction as a serious problem and the prison camp approach has been used for several years, now. It has its critics and certain incidents have given the approach some bad publicity. In 2009, at one such camp which was run illegally, an inmate – who was said to have been only an occasional user of the internet – was beaten to death by the drill instructors. That particular camp was subsequently shut down.
The young boys, along with a small number of girls, who are brought to such camps often share a common domestic situation; many have no siblings and their relationships with their parents is remote. One boy, Nicky, who is featured in the film Web Junkies, which debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, talks about why he spend so much time online. “At home, I feel I don’t exist.” he told his father who was visiting him at the camp in Daxing, on the edge of the Chinese capital, Beijing. “I feel neither of you care about me. On the Internet I have friends who care about me.”
Professor Tao Ran, who works at the camp in Daxing and specializes in addictions, says of the children “they have a bias towards virtual reality.” He believes it is an addiction similar to that induced by the use of narcotics. “These are the same as heroin addicts.” he explained, “the teenagers we have here crave and look forward to playing games online every day. That’s why we call it electronic heroin.” To emphasize the point, the professor recounts that some of the children had previously been so concerned that using the bathroom would affect their gaming performance that they would wear diapers while online.
According to the Director of Addiction Medicine at Beijing Military Region Central Hospital, more than 13 percent of adolescent Chinese internet users, around 10 million, could be clinically diagnosed as suffering from internet addiction. South Korea is also grappling with what they consider to be a significant and growing problem. Both countries have now passed laws which are aimed at spreading awareness of the issue, as well as discouraging more than a couple hours’ internet use per day. As yet, there has been no significant investigation of the alleged problem in the United States.
As for the young Chinese whose apparent internet addiction has landed them in one of the country’s prison camp-like rehabilitation centers, their chances of being “cured” seem uncertain. “I’ll be the same as I was before,” said one inmate of Daxing on the day before he was due to be released. The center claims a 70 percent success rate, but many are still skeptical of the methods used.
By Graham J Noble