Through Monday, China's State Council is accepting public suggestions and feedback on its amendments to a draft law on Internet protection for minors, in which the government will be banning aggressive, often-abusive treatment in so-called Internet addiction camps. According to Tao Ran, director of the country's first Internet addiction treatment clinic under a military hospital in Beijing, Internet addiction is a massive problem in China, home to 200 million online users aged between 15 and 35. The National People's Congress has estimated that 10 percent of Internet users in China under 18 are, by definition, physically "addicted."
Since officially recognizing Internet addiction as a mental disorder in 2008, Chinese rehabilitation camps designed to treat online addiction have opened across the country. The Fourth Hospital in Linyi, Shandong Province, and its deputy head Yang Yongxin are the most well-known among young Net users and their parents.
Yang practiced electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for a specialized treatment which initially was embraced by desperate parents and society as a whole, but was eventually outlawed by the Chinese Ministry of Health in 2009. Yang then used another method, low-frequency pulse therapy, which former patients claimed was even more painful than electricity.
Other camps adopted crude military-style disciplinary methods, which were reported by young patients as "abusive" and even "violent." In 2009, a 15-year-old boy was beaten to death by his overseers in an Internet rehab camp in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region; in 2014, a 19-year-old girl died in Zhengzhou, Henan Province after being beaten and kicked by several drillmasters at her Net rehab facility.
A counselor surnamed Liao from a military-style rehab camp in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, denied that any abuse has ever occurred in their camp but admitted that drillmasters intensify physical training to punish those teens who refuse to submit.
"Youngsters who break rules or refuse to change their minds and behavior will be asked to stand at attention, run or carry tires," he told the Global Times.
Similar to prison
Nearly 90 percent of patients treated at Liao's camp are 14 or 15 years of age and obsessed with computer games. Normally they must live on-site for a period of six months to one year at a cost 25,800 yuan ($3,761) for the first six months and 2,000 yuan for each month after that. Every student is personally monitored by a teacher 24 hours per day, 7 days a week, similar to a prison or military barrack.
"Parents don't need to worry if their children will flee from our camp to go surf the Internet," Liao said. "A teacher follows every child wherever he or she goes, even to the toilet. At night, four or five children share a room, along with a teacher and a drillmaster, to maintain order."
According to Liao, drillmasters at their camp are retired soldiers who once served in the People's Liberation Army. Their teachers all graduated from universities or colleges and have teaching certification. Students attend four classes every morning and four in the afternoon, followed by a self-study period in the evening.
Unlike a normal school, however, morning sessions follow the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) "quasi-ritualized therapeutic sessions" method, where they must make self-criticisms and group-criticism of their behavior and attitudes. Teenage addicts at the camp also receive one-to-one and group psychological therapy with counselors holding professional certifications.
But psychologist Wan Lizhu from the Ruiling Consulting Center in Shanghai, who for the past decade has helped adolescents out of Internet overuse, believes that Internet camps bring more harm than benefits. "Once I met an adolescent who refused to return to such a camp in Guangdong Province. He was so depressed and helpless in that environment that he almost had a mental breakdown."
Wan told the Global Times that many Internet camps use violence to intimidate teenagers; some have reportedly being whipped with a lash and others locked in pitch-black solitary confinement cells. Weak-willed children might be frightened into quitting the Internet in order not to be sent back to the camp, but stubborn or aggressive children instead tend to develop a deep hatred toward their parents and authorities and use their time in isolation to plot their revenge.