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Internet Internment, Part II

The "cure" for online gaming that hurts more than it helps

10·26·2014

Internet Internment, Part II

The "cure" for online gaming that hurts more than it helps

10·26·2014

Continuing from Internet Internment Part I.

Treating Internet Addiction

Clinical internet addiction is a serious problem. Parents may be primarily concerned with how games keep kids from studying as hard as they should, but internet addiction can affect a patient’s thought patterns and moods, cause physical withdrawal symptoms, and— as Ms. Zhao’s murder gruesomely demonstrates—lead to conflicts between the addict and those around them.

But for all the violent and gruesome stories in the Chinese press about game addiction gone wrong, there are also stories about treatment gone horribly awry. Earlier this year in Shenzhen, for example, a Chinese father was arrested for beating his 14-year-old son with a stick, covering him with wounds and nearly breaking his arm, all because the child was playing too many games and his grades were suffering. A mother in Guiyang literally chained her son to his desk for several hours a day to prevent him from sneaking off to the internet cafe to play games. It didn’t work, by the way. Her son escaped on April 18th and hasn’t been seen since; it is now considered a missing persons case.

But the real headline-grabbers have always been the anti-addiction “boot camps”, self-styled therapy centers where parents can leave their internet-addicted children and (ideally) come back a few months later to pick up their newly-cured son or daughter.

camp

Things don’t always work out so perfectly, though. Earlier this year, for example, parents dropped off their 19-year-old daughter Ling Ling at the Zhengzhou Boqiang New Conceptual Life Training School, an anti-addiction boot camp in Henan Province. Soon thereafter, she was dead. The Zhengzhou school, like many of China’s anti-addiction schools, mixes therapy with military-style physical training, and, in Ling Ling’s case, things went too far.

Ling Ling and another girl were being punished with physical fitness drills and, according to a surviving classmate, the school’s teachers repeatedly picked Ling Ling up by her arms and legs and then dropped her to the ground. When she became unable to get up and began vomiting blood, the teachers apparently thought she was faking and continued to beat her. It’s not clear at what point exactly Ling Ling was killed, but at the end of the night, both girls were in the hospital and Ling Ling had been declared dead. Her autopsy showed that her death had been caused by blunt force trauma to the head. The impact from the object caused fatal skull and brain damage.

This might sound like an atypical case, but it’s not as unusual as you might think. An investigative report in Chinese newspaper The Mirror found 12 similar cases of abuse at anti-addiction schools in the last four years, and nearly all of them involved corporal punishment. Seven of them ended in death. One child, 15-year-old Deng Senshan, went to a Nanning anti-addiction school and was dead within eight hours. A 13-year-old student at a Liaoning anti-addiction school found himself in the hospital with a fractured clavicle just two hours after being dropped off for treatment.

The problem seems to be that, while China is fairly unified in agreement that internet addiction is a real and serious problem, there is far less agreement  when it comes to how it ought to be treated and, more importantly, how that treatment ought to be regulated. There are an estimated 300 anti-addiction schools and camps around China, but regulations, standards, and oversight are lacking. Some of the schools that killed children were operating illegally. Others were officially registered as nonprofits, and a few were registered under other auspices. Moreover, several of the schools whose treatments resulted in student deaths continue to operate.

There’s also not much evidence that these schools or their methods actually work. In the abuse cases investigated by The Mirror that didn’t result in deaths, all but one set of parents said their child’s addiction had actually gotten worse since completing the program. A recent New York Times documentary about another such facility shows students reminiscing fondly about gaming while sitting in their dormitory and denying that they’re genuinely addicted to gaming.

The Future of Online Addiction 

If 10 percent of China’s young online internet users really are addicted to games, then the problem could be about to get a lot worse. China’s internet user numbers are skyrocketing, from less than 100 million a decade ago to more than 600 million today. The saving grace may be that many of these new users are focused on the mobile web, where games tend to be more of a temporary diversion than an addicting time-sink. But with millions of new young people coming online each year, China’s internet addiction problem is still probably going to get worse before it gets better.

That’s good news for the people who run the anti-addiction schools. Many of them claim to be nonprofit but charge hefty tuition fees—Ling Ling’s school cost 5,500 RMB per month, more than the average Chinese worker’s salary. In an atmosphere with little oversight or accountability at present, the number of schools like the one that killed Ling Ling is likely to grow.

In the near future, China’s government will probably need to take a close look at treatment standards for clinical internet addiction, as well as operating standards for boot camps and “schools” like the one Ling Ling attended. Public awareness of internet addiction—and more importantly how to treat it—will also be an important hurdle. But the biggest problem may be that, at present, there is no clear consensus on what the most effective way to treat internet addicted Chinese teens is. Boot-camp schools work sometimes, but other times they don’t, and their mortality rates are terrifyingly high.

The problem of internet addiction is large and getting larger. Acknowledging the issue was an important first step. But to move further forward, China will probably have to find a better way of treating it.