Dressed in layers of military fatigues to protect them from the harsh Beijing winter, a group of young men troop up and down a stretch of gray concrete. It bears all the hallmarks of a first drill-yard march – confused recruits who don’t know right from left, barked at by a straight-backed instructor.
But these teenagers aren’t here by choice. They’re the inmates of a Chinese boot camp designed to cure them of their internet gaming addiction. It may seem like an extreme form of detox, but desperate circumstances call for desperate measures.
According to the Chinese government, 24 million minors suffer from internet addiction. And in the People’s Republic it’s considered a clinical condition, arguably comparable to opiate dependence. In other words, it’s something that can be cured.
The addiction usually starts in internet cafes. In these cigarette smoke-stained rooms, young men spend hours at a time playing games. Some of them even go so far as to wear diapers in order to avoid stopping.
There’s something in the garish décor and rows of monitors that harks back to the heyday of arcades. Glassy-eyed teens in hoodies sit on frayed leather chairs, pupils focused on the screen – fingers dancing over keyboard and mouse.
While many locations have banned cigarettes, there’s still that smell of old tobacco – ingrained through years of chain smoking. A government report from 2011 claimed that there were more than 144,000 of these licensed cafes throughout China, with even more run illegally.
Many of the cafes are open all day and all night. One, the Hao Fengjing in Beijing, has taken to offering gamers free showers at a business close by, after 24 hours of play. Anyone refusing to take them up on this has the power pulled on their machine.
It’s in these seedy cafes that the first signs of addiction start to show. One user, Chen Fei, was a solid student who used the cybercafes to relax. Then his grades plummeted and he was spending 20 hours at a time in front of a monitor.
Speaking to The Telegraph, Chen’s Father said, “We can’t control him any more. We want him to understand what is happening to him, to heal, and for this nightmare to be over.” But some might say the boot camps trade one nightmare for another.
There’s a shrill whistle and a shout of “get up,” from the corridor. A red light is flashed in the eyes, then it’s out of bed and into the cold to slip on the combat trousers and t-shirt that are the uniform of The Internet Addiction Treatment Centre in Daxing.
Since opening its doors in 2006, this program has taken in more than 6,000 teenagers – putting them through military training and electro shock therapy and medicating them. The conditions inside are more like those of a prison than a hospital, though.
Boys share rooms – sleeping on rickety iron-framed bunk beds – and stick to a strict routine of physical exercise. They’re paraded around in their combat gear, lined up for inspections and dosed with medicine.
It is recommended that parents stay at the institute during the time their children are reconditioned. While their sons, and sometimes daughters, have electrodes strapped to their heads and one to five milliamps of electricity shot through them, the parents are lectured on loneliness and societal integration by Tao Ran, director of the center.
Tao ranks as a colonel in the People’s Liberation Army and is additionally a psychiatrist. He’s been specializing in addiction since 1991 and claims his methods have a 70 percent chance of being successful. He also states that 67 percent of all youth misdemeanors are perpetrated by internet junkies.
Those enrolled in the program are incommunicado with the people outside the center. Their letters are read before they’re posted, and they have no access to electronic equipment whatsoever. Some sit around and play cards in their free time. Others stare through the chicken-wire covered windows and cry.
They’re given courses of sedatives and antidepressants – supervised by the institute’s nurses, who look in the boys’ mouths to ensure they’ve swallowed the pills. Some parents say that these drugs, as well as medical tests and even food, aren’t included in the $1,400 monthly treatment cost.
And while deaths of gamers at internet cafes may make news around the world, the programs – of which there are now as many as 300 in China – aren’t without their controversy either. At least two “students” have died while seeking to end their addiction.
Guo Linglong, a 19-year-old girl, and Deng Senshan, a 15-year-old boy, were both beaten so severely by guards at camps in Henan and Guangxi, respectively, that they later lost their lives. Guo died after a disciplinary exercise inflicted because she went to the bathroom without permission.
Chinese newspaper Legal Evening News has also reported at least a dozen different incidents of violence towards students. Seven of these resulted in death. One psychiatrist, Trent Bax, even compares the methods of the institute to torture.
Still, Tao claims that the program – which is followed by post-care and incremental internet re-assimilation – has a high success rate. With gaming addiction alone afflicting as much as 18 percent of kids between eight and 18, according to one global survey, we’re unlikely to have seen the last of such extreme treatment centers – in China and beyond.