This article in Thursday’s Washington Post– about Chinese efforts to treat “internet addiction” among the nation’s young– reads in parts like dystopian fiction.
Sun Jiting spends his days locked behind metal bars in this military-run installation, put there by his parents. The 17-year-old high school student is not allowed to communicate with friends back home, and his only companions are psychologists, nurses and other patients. Each morning at 6:30, he is jolted awake by a soldier in fatigues shouting, “This is for your own good!”
Sun’s offense: Internet addiction.
Alarmed by a survey that found that nearly 14 percent of teens in China are vulnerable to becoming addicted to the Internet, the Chinese government has launched a nationwide campaign to stamp out what the Communist Youth League calls “a grave social problem” that threatens the nation.
There’s a global controversy over whether heavy Internet use should be defined as a mental disorder, with some psychologists, including a handful in the United States, arguing that it should be. Backers of the notion say the addiction can be crippling, leading people to neglect work, school and social lives.
But no country has gone quite as far as China in embracing the theory and mounting a public crusade against Internet addiction. To skeptics, the campaign dovetails a bit too nicely with China’s broader effort to control what its citizens can see on the Internet. The Communist government runs a massive program that limits Web access, censors sites and seeks to control online political dissent. Internet companies like Google have come under heavy criticism abroad for going along with China’s demands.
The clinic in Daxing, a suburb of Beijing, the capital, is the oldest and largest, with 60 patients on a normal day and as many as 280 during peak periods. Few of the patients, who range in age from 12 to 24, are here willingly. Most have been forced to come by their parents, who are paying upward of $1,300 a month — about 10 times the average salary in China — for the treatment.
Led by Tao Ran, a military researcher who built his career by treating heroin addicts, the clinic uses a tough-love approach that includes counseling, military discipline, drugs, hypnosis and mild electric shocks.
Located on an army training base, the Internet-addiction clinic is distinct from the other buildings on campus because of the metal grates and padlocks on every door and the bars on every window.
Inside Room No. 8 are toys and other figurines that the teens can play with while psychologists watch. Room 10 contains rows of fake machine guns that the patients use for role-play scenarios that are supposed to bridge the virtual world with the real one.
Room No. 4 is made up to look like home, with rattan furniture and fake flowers, to provide a comfortable place for counselors to talk to the teens. The staff tries to blend into the artificial environment. Before meeting with a patient, one counselor swapped her olive military uniform for a motherly cardigan and plaid skirt.
No one is comfortable talking about the third floor of the clinic, where serious cases — usually two or three at a time — are housed. Most have been addicted to the Internet for five or more years, Tao said, are severely depressed and refuse counseling. One sliced his wrists but survived. These teens are under 24-hour supervision.
Earlier this month, four teens fled their dorm rooms and jumped in a taxi. They made it to a train station before soldiers caught them, according to Li Jiali, a military guard. They were isolated and asked to write reports about why their actions were wrong.
And perhaps someday– like Winston Smith– they will win the victory over themselves.