How to deal with internet addiction – Chinese style

A man smokes while using a computer at an Internet cafe in Taiyuan

“The biggest difference between us and their parents is that their parents want to lock them up. Whereas we don’t” says Dr Tao, the lead psychiatrist in charge of a rehabilitation centre for teenage internet addicts.

“Chairman” Tao then proceeds to lock up Hope, one of the teenage ‘addicts’ for 10 days in solitary confinement.

This excellent documentary by Storyville focuses on the medicalisation and radical ‘treatment’ of the growing problem of internet addiction in China. The teenagers in the bootcamp have been defined as “addicts” as they use the internet for more than 4 hours a day – not for study or work purposes. At one point they describe how they ended up in rehab: one was drugged by his parents and carried in his sleep, another was promised a skiing holiday, only to be dumped in a rehab detention centre on the outskirts of Beijing.

The treatment can last for months or even years and involves instilling discipline and order, whilst obviously avoiding any use of computers. The boys are made to do marching drills, press ups and keep their rooms tidy, whilst the centre offers lectures, individual therapy and family therapy. They also offer brainwashing the teenagers into changing their behaviour. The brainwashing (originally a Chinese term) involves repetition: singing repeated choruses of patriotic army ditties expounding the glory of the nation, the virtues of obedience and the importance of rules in life.

The documentary raises some interesting questions about mental illness and the internet – Do parents fail to fully understand the social elements of living online?  Is there a point at which it becomes unhealthy to remain on the internet? Some of these children are from violent and abusive homes, One of the boys talks about how he tried to jump out of a window after failing a level on a computer game. Another father talks openly about how he threatened his son with a knife to make a point. It is clear in many of these cases that the internet addiction is not the route of the problem, so it does seem a bit extreme to set up a bootcamp that focuses on the one form of release these teenagers have.

The program ends with an alternative solution to the problem: One father hired online virtual ninjas to assassinate his son’s avatar character in an online shoot ’em up in a desperate attempt to get his son to stop playing online games. Unfortunately his son cottoned on to his ruse and beat out the truth from his virtual assailant.

It is a fantastic documentary. Go watch it. now…

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