your connection to The Boston Globe

China mounts crusade against teen Internet addiction

DAXING, China -- 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 suggested 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.

Few countries have been as effective historically in fighting drug and alcohol addiction as China, which has been lauded for its successes, as well as criticized for techniques.

Now the country is turning its attention to fighting another supposed addiction -- one that has been blamed in the state-run media for a murder over virtual property earned in an online game, for a string of suicides, and for poor academic achievement.

The Chinese government in recent months has joined South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam in taking measures to limit the time teens spend online. It has passed regulations banning youths from Internet cafes and has implemented control programs that kick teens off networked games after five hours.

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 idea say the addiction can be crippling, leading people to neglect work, school, and their 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.

In the Internet-addiction campaign, the government is helping to fund eight in-patient rehabilitation clinics across the country.

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 in the installation willingly. Most have been forced 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.

Tao said the clinic is based on the idea that there are many similarities between his current patients and those he had in the past.

In terms of withdrawal: "If you let someone go online and then he can't go online, you may see a physical reaction, just like someone coming off drugs." And in terms of resistance: "Today you go half an hour, and the next day you need 45 minutes. It's like starting with drinking one glass, and then needing half a bottle to feel the same way."

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.

On the first level are 10 locked treatment rooms geared toward treating teen patients suffering from disturbed sleep, lack of motivation, aggression, and depression, among other problems. Unlike the rest of the building, which is painted in blues and grays and kept cold to keep the teens alert, these rooms are sunny and warm.

Inside Room 8 are toys and other figurines the teens can play with while psychologists watch. Room 10 contains rows of fake machine guns the patients use for role-play scenarios that are supposed to bridge the virtual world with the real one.

Room 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. Before meeting with a patient, one counselor swapped her olive military uniform for a cardigan and plaid skirt.

Among the milder cases are those of Yu Bo, 21, from Inner Mongolia, and Li Yanjiang, 15, from Hebei Province. Both said that they used to spend four to five hours a week online and their daily lives weren't affected but that their parents wanted them to cut their computer usage to zero so they could study.

Yu said he agreed to come because he wanted to train himself. Li said just wanted to "get away from my parents."

Perceived as a more serious case is that of He Fang, 22, a college student from the western region of Xinjiang. The business administration major said his grades plummeted when he started playing online games several hours a night. The clinic "has mainly helped me change the way I think," he said. "It's not about getting away from pressure, but facing it ."

No one is comfortable talking about the third floor of the clinic, where serious cases 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.

Tao said he believes 70 percent of the teens, after one to three months of treatment, will go home and lead normal lives, but he's less optimistic about the third-floor patients. "Their souls are gone to the online world," he said.

Guo Tiejun, a school headmaster turned psychologist who runs an Internet-addiction research center in Shanghai, said the military-run clinic goes too far in treating Internet addicts like alcohol and drug addicts.

He said that he has treated several former patients of the Daxing clinic and that one mother told him it was simply "suffering for a month" that did not help her son. He advocates a softer approach. Guo said he believes that the root of the problem is loneliness.

Guo is especially critical of the use of medications for Internet addiction because, he said, that approach treats symptoms, not causes.

Tao and his team of 15 doctors and nurses defended the treatment methods. He said that while some clinics depend wholly on medications, only one out of five patients at the Daxing clinic receive prescription drugs. Tao agreed that Internet addiction is usually an expression of deeper psychological problems.

"We use these medicines to give them happiness, so they no longer need to go on the Internet to be happy," Tao said.