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In an increasingly wired China, rehab for Internet addicts

A Beijing treatment center for Web-addicted youths includes counseling, group games like laser tag, and physical exercise.

By Jonathan AdamsCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 6, 2009

Time to refresh: A group of young Internet addicts at the rehab center watches others participate in 'confidence-building measures,' as the song 'If you're happy and you know it' plays.

Jonathan Adams

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A 6 a.m. wake-up call. Afternoon drills in military bearing and formations. And a grueling regime of push-ups and leg lifts before the 9:30 p.m. lights-out.

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Welcome to rehab for Internet addicts – People's Liberation Army (PLA) style.

Here, on a military base outside Beijing, a progressive Chinese psychologist, Tao Ran, has established a treatment center for a distinctly 21st-century malady.

The center is an experiment in treating "non-material" addictions – others include work-, shop- and sex-aholism – that are booming along with China's rapid modernization, says Dr. Tao.

"The problem is getting worse," says Tao. "[Internet addicts] can't adjust to school and society, so they try to escape their difficulties and avoid problems. They lack self-confidence and often don't have the courage to continue their lives."

China has the world's largest number of Internet users – 290 million and counting, with 70 percent under the age of 30. And a recent survey of Internet use by global market information group TNS found that Chinese spend the highest proportion of their leisure time online – 44 percent – out of users in 16 countries.

Tao estimates that 4 to 6 percent of Chinese netizens, which includes more than 13 percent of Chinese college students, are addicts – a term he defines as anyone who spends more than six hours per day for three months or more on nonwork- or study-related Internet use. That amounts to as many as 17 million net junkies in China. By comparison, about 8 percent of college students in the US are addicted Web users, he estimates.

Last fall, Tao coauthored a controversial diagnostic manual for "Internet Addiction Disorder," and he's now fighting to get the disorder accepted both by Chinese netizens and by health organizations at home and abroad.

Finding games and friends in the real world

Tao's center, which opened in 2004, has become the model for other such centers countrywide, which now number more than 300.

Here, in addition to military-style discipline, some 60-odd patients at his center undergo a three-month regimen of counseling, confidence-building activities, sex education, and in about 60 percent of the cases, medication. The treatment is designed to address underlying family and psychological problems, and boost their self-confidence.

There are a handful of young women here, going "cold turkey" from "Audition" and similar games, where players engage in dance battles, decorate virtual homes, and have virtual husbands and babies. (One female patient had amassed 68 "husbands," says Tao, with a sigh).

But most of the patients are young men, 15 to 21 years old, hooked on multiplayer online games – especially World of Warcraft and Counterstrike.

"They believe the virtual world is beautiful and fair," said Tao. "In the real world, they become depressed, upset, and restless – they are very unhappy."

Jia Chunyang, a teenager from the coastal city Qingdao, is a typical patient. Wearing a military-green jumpsuit and hip black-framed glasses, he explains that Counterstrike is his "drug" of choice. A couple years ago his gaming habit – which he indulged at least five or six hours a day – started to seriously affect his life.