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.

Jonathan Adams
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
MOCK GUN: Tao Ran, who runs the Internet addict rehab center, shows the toy gun patients use to play laser tag in order to build confidence.

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.

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.

"My relations with friends weren't good; I only communicated with them online," says Jia. "I stole money from my family and skipped school. And the games also affected my personality. If I couldn't play for a while, I would feel upset."

He hit bottom in 2006, when he ran away from home and went on a 15-day Counterstrike bender in an Internet cafe. He took breaks for instant noodles and half-hour catnaps, but otherwise went on an uninterrupted shoot-'em-up spree, as his parents searched for him.

Now, at the rehab center, he says he's feeling much better. He was touched by his parents' willingness to come all the way to Beijing to try to address his problems.

He says the toughest parts of rehab are the evening exercises and military training. But he credits the center with helping him regain control of his life. "It's changed me a lot," says Jia, giving him structure, access to counseling, and new friends. "I feel like we're brothers, sharing this different life together ... sometimes I don't want to leave."

A symptom of rapid modernization

Tao emphasizes that "Internet addiction" is a symptom of deeper family and psychological problems. The majority of patients come from broken homes or were emotionally neglected in childhood, he says, which is why he insists on treating young patients together with their parents.

He says more than 20 percent of patients also have psychological problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity or personality disorders, which require more attention.

Still, he says his center gives young men and women and their families a chance to face their demons head-on, and try to kick Internet habits which have interfered with their schooling, work, and personal relationships.

The center is on the cutting edge of Chinese society, in which seeking help for mental illness, family problems, or addiction has traditionally been rejected as a shameful loss of "face."

But Tao says such attitudes are changing as China's modernization poses new social challenges: higher pressures in China's hyper-competitive workplace, breakdown of family ties, higher divorce rates, rapid commercialization, and issues related to new technologies.

In China, he says, Internet addiction is mostly a problem for teens – as opposed to the US, where it affects more adults (in particular, US males addicted to online pornography).

Back at the center, the mother of one patient from Jiangsu Province says her generation was spared what she calls the "mental heroin" of online games and content that hooks kids. "I think this kind of treatment is good," says the mother, who did not want to give her name out of embarrassment over her family's problems. "It combines psychological, medical, educational, military, and physical exercise."

Despite the military-style discipline, the patients also have fun. Tao shows off the mock AK-47 assault rifles and battle gear they use for "laser tag" games. Later, 40 Internet addicts in military-green jumpsuits huddle in a conference room for some team-building exercises, as their "counselors" – PLA soldiers – watch.

As the song "If you're happy and you know it" plays, two web addicts at a time spin around until dizzy, then try to race each other across the room. Later, they line up in pairs to pop pink balloons by hugging each other tightly, amid raucous laughter.

"Every child in this rehab center has a sad or miserable history, because their parents didn't treat them justly," says Tao. "Here, they can build their confidence, become more social, and develop group spirit."

Zhang Yajun contributed to this article.

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