China gives 'web addicts' shock treatment
ZHU ZHENGHUA thought his parents were taking him to Beijing to go sightseeing. Instead they checked the 19-year-old into the Beijing Military Hospital's clinic for internet addicts, which claims to be the world's first.
"I used to stay online until I was tired. I don't know how long. Days?" Zhu says.
"So maybe this clinic is good for me."
China's online population recently topped 100 million, but that has brought problems as well as advantages.
Almost all the clinic's young patients have dropped out of school or college because of their internet obsession.
Clinic director Tao Ran, a specialist with 20 years experience in treating addictions, says addicts cease to communicate with family and friends.
They live huddled in front of a computer screen, drifting through internet chat rooms or playing violent online games.
"These are children with low self-esteem or behavioural problems, and going on to the internet boosts their self-confidence.
"It makes them feel mature and successful and it gives them a sense of achievement."
The children are depressed, fearful, unwilling to interact with others, and many have sleep disorders and numbness in their hands, he says.
However, the internet is a catalyst rather than a cause of the problems, he says.
Most addicts have behavioural problems that are aggravated by their internet addiction.
In the past they might have turned to crime, drugs or suicide to cope with their alienation.
About 80 per cent of Tao's patients are addicted to games, about 10 per cent to chat rooms, 5 per cent go online to gamble and 5 per cent are obsessive, he says.
Tao says one boy crept out of his room at night and hacked his way into the clinic's computer systems by cracking passwords.
The most addicted are online game players.
"Games are very attractive and very real," Tao says.
He once experimented with his daughter's online games and found them so mesmerising that he stayed up almost all night.
China is cracking down on online games, requiring that all games gain official approval.
Tao places says he cures about 70 per cent of his addicted patients.
Those who slip back usually have other problems that they have failed to tackle, he says.
Family problems are common to almost all of Tao's patients.
Nearly all patients are children born under China's strict one-couple-one-child policy, who have been smothered with love and given too much freedom.
Some are from one-parent families, and many have been handed to doting grandparents so the parents can seek their fortune in the city.
Tao insists that parents of addicts have counselling.
He has treated nearly 400 patients since opening the clinic this year. It can take 20, and has almost as many doctors and nurses.
Treatment is expensive at about $70 daily, with patients staying an average of two weeks.
On arrival, they have a diagnostic test to determine whether they are addicted.
They are then treated with a combination of therapy, medication, acupuncture and sports such as swimming and basketball to ease them back into the routines of normal life.
At 6am each day they go into the gardens for exercise drills under the supervision of a soldier responsible for their security. During the day they may have sessions on a machine that stimulates nerve impulses with 30-volt charges to pressure points.
In the afternoon they gather in a circle in a small room, sitting on cushions on the floor, to share experiences. They also take medication.
One ward is shared by Dai Ge, 16, and Ji Liang, 15. Both boys have just been admitted and have yet to start treatment.
"I like to play games a lot. I think I understand why my parents sent me here," Ji Liang says.
Dai Ge lies on his back, stares at the ceiling and refuses to look visitors in the eye.
"I don't play for such a long time online," he says.
Tao says the boy usually spent eight hours daily online.
"We'll get to work with him tomorrow. He should be fine," Tao says.