China is witnessing a surge of military-style boot camps to fight the problem with a range of ways, including electric shocks

first_imgTao Ran recalls that it all began in the long summer of 2003. China was just getting back on its feet after a dreadful few months combating the spread of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), when cities including Beijing completely shut down and resembled ghost towns. The months of lockdown,Tao Ran recalls that it all began in the long summer of 2003. China was just getting back on its feet after a dreadful few months combating the spread of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), when cities including Beijing completely shut down and resembled ghost towns. The months of lockdown meant an extended break for Beijing’s school students, many of who stayed home for as long as half a year without attending classes. But when schools began to open in August, many teachers found that their classrooms weren’t full.”Some students had stopped coming to classes,” says Tao, a leading psychiatrist who was at the time working with the People’s Liberation Army Mental Health Advising Centre, and treating alcoholics and drug addicts. “When we began to dig deeper, we found that many were going to internet bars instead of school.” During that summer, Tao says, hundreds of young Chinese who had spent their days in gaming rooms online had become hooked-China’s first generation of internet addicts.”We estimate there are 40 million internet addicts in China today,” says Tao, speaking to India Today in his office at the Beijing Shijian Integrated Medicine Science Institute which studies internet addiction. Alarmed by the spread of internet addiction following SARS, Tao, a stocky and sprightly doctor who hasn’t lost any of his military demeanour, got the government’s support in setting up China’s first Internet Addiction Treatment Centre in Daxing, a Beijing suburb. Tao’s centre resembles more a military bootcamp than a hospital-its sprawling facility includes dormitories, basketball courts and PLA-style training courses.advertisementThe centre has treated hundreds of young internet addicts. Most, Tao says, were students who were spending hours every day-from at least six to more than 18-lost in the virtual worlds of online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft and League of Legends-arguably the two most popular games in China. “These were children, many in boarding schools away from their parents, who would not play sports or socialise, and even climb the walls of school to get away in search of internet bars,” he says.The treatments at Tao’s centre range from a minimum of three months to as long as one year. The course, he says, is half-physical and half-mental. His approach is different from the West where “the focus is on drugs”. “We believe in finding the root of the problem,” he says. The exercises and healthy diets are aimed at addressing health problems that are commonplace in addicts. The mental aspect involves counselling and addressing problems within families. Some students had turned to the solace of the virtual world because of unresolved problems at home.Some camps in China, Tao says, follow more extreme approaches. This, he says, is a cause for concern. The proliferation of boot camps to counter spreading internet addiction has led to an unregulated industry. Some have liberally deployed electric shock therapies which, Tao says, should only be used in rare cases. Last year, one 19-year-old girl was beaten to death, allegedly by boot camp teachers. The Daxing camp has an “80 to 85 per cent” success rate, says Tao. But there are no guarantees. One student took close to two years to be cured after relapsing several times.Tao says his methods have been pioneering. It was one report of his that prompted China to label internet addiction as a clinical disorder-the first country to do so. His centre has received students from Japan, South Korea and Australia. Tao says he’s ready to share his methods with India, and his message to Indian authorities is that addiction is a problem that cannot be ignored. “If you are having a young generation with values shaped by a virtual reality without laws, without responsibility, without morals, this is dangerous.” In China, he points out there have been several instances of young addicts turning to crime to pay for their addiction. The roots of the problem may lie in the virtual world, but its social impact is certainly real.- Follow the writer on Twitter @ananthkrishnanlast_img read more