Reports Reveal Pattern of Brutality in Chinese Attempts to 'Treat' Internet Addiction

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By Hugh C. McBride

The news reports were horrifying: A Chinese teenager had died shortly after being enrolled by his parents in a "tough love" treatment program for Internet addiction.

According to an Aug. 6 Associated Press article, Deng Senshan died Aug. 3 after being beaten by employees of an Internet addiction program that his parents had sent him to three days earlier:

Deng was found vomiting and was taken to a clinic where he died. Fellow students said a teacher beat him, [Chinese news agency] Xinhua reported.

The report quoted the local government as saying several marks were found on the boy's body. It said four trainers from the Qihang Salvation Training Camp in Nanning city have been detained.

With the concept of Internet addiction itself still somewhat controversial, attempts to treat this disorder have yet to be standardized, resulting in a wide range of treatment philosophies and methodologies.

While many Chinese programs have opted for harsh (some would say torturous) techniques that risk clients' health – and, in some cases, their very lives – a number of respected programs in the United States have had success by implementing much more humane, progressive means of treating Internet addiction and video game compulsions.

Identifying the Problem

Internet addiction does not appear in the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), but this has not stopped health care providers in the United States and abroad from attempting to identify and address what appears to be a more common problem in an increasingly wired world.

In a manner that is similar to those who are afflicted with other non-substance addictions or compulsions (such as compulsive gambling and sex addiction), individuals who are addicted to video games or the Internet feel compelled to participate in these activities, experience withdrawal symptoms when they cannot do so, and cannot stop even after the behavior has begun to damage their health, social life or employment status.

In an article that appeared in the March 2008 issue of The American Journal of Psychiatry, Jerald J. Block, M.D., argued that Internet addiction merited inclusion in the next edition of the DSM:

Internet addiction appears to be a common disorder that merits inclusion in DSM-V. Conceptually, the diagnosis is a compulsive-impulsive spectrum disorder that involves online and/or offline computer usage and consists of at least three subtypes: excessive gaming, sexual preoccupations, and e-mail/text messaging.

All of the variants share the following four components: 1) excessive use, often associated with a loss of sense of time or a neglect of basic drives, 2) withdrawal, including feelings of anger, tension, and/or depression when the computer is inaccessible, 3) tolerance, including the need for better computer equipment, more software, or more hours of use, and 4) negative repercussions, including arguments, lying, poor achievement, social isolation, and fatigue.

An Aggressive Approach

About eight months after Dr. Block's article was published, a Nov. 10 article on the website of the China Daily newspaper reported that Chinese doctors had released that nation's first diagnostic definition for Internet addiction:

Symptoms of addiction included yearning to get back online, mental or physical distress, irritation and difficulty concentrating or sleeping.

The definition, based on a study of more than 1,300 problematic computer users, classifies as addicts those who spend at least six hours online a day and have shown at least one symptom in the past three months.

"Eighty percent of addicts can be cured with treatment, which usually lasts about three months," said [Tao Ran, a medical expert at Beijing's Military General Hospital]. He did not describe the treatment, however.

The timing of this announcement should not be interpreted to mean that Chinese doctors were not attempting to treat Internet addiction until November 2008. For example, in an Oct. 10, 2005, article about China's first Internet addiction treatment program, Daniel Griffiths of the BBC News quoted the clinic's director, Tao Ran, as observing that "internet addiction among young people is becoming a major issue here."

Another report, this one a Feb. 22, 2007 article by Ariana Eunjung Cha of the Washington Post Foreign Service, revealed that Internet addiction treatment in China was already well-established, and quite controversial, at least by Western standards:

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.

"No country has gone quite as far as China in embracing the theory and mounting a public crusade against Internet addiction," Cha wrote. "To skeptics, the campaign dovetails a bit too nicely with China's broader effort to control what its citizens can see on the Internet."

A Pattern of Brutality

Early wake-ups and in-your-face "counselors" were far from the only discomforts endured by those who were being treated for Internet addiction in China. On July 14, the Reuters news service reported that China's Ministry of Health had banned the use of electroshock therapy in Internet addiction treatment programs:

The Ministry of Health announcement followed recent media reports about a controversial psychiatrist in Linyi, Shandong Province, who administered electric currents to nearly 3,000 teenagers in an attempt to rid them of their Internet habit.

In addition to being subjected to electroshock treatments, Reuters reported, Chinese youth in the Internet Addiction Treatment Center at Linyi Mental Hospital were also given psychotropic drugs as part of their "treatment."

This approach to Internet addiction treatment was also addressed in Ariana Eunjung Cha's Washington Post article. At his clinic in a suburb of Beijing, Cha reports, "Tao Ran, a military researcher who built his career by treating heroin addicts ... uses a tough-love approach that includes counseling, military discipline, drugs, hypnosis and mild electric shocks."

In the Aug. 6 Associated Press article about the beating death of Deng Senshan, Tao Ran was quoted as telling the AP that such deaths are "bound to happen" because many Chinese Internet addiction programs emphasize harsh discipline and many of the young people who enter these programs suffer from disorders that make it difficult for them to comply with their instructors' commands:

Tao said 40 percent of those addicted to the Internet suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and find it difficult to obey orders at training camps.

"They are only one-fourth or one-fifth as efficient in their academic life," he said. "Once you put these kids to the training camps or schools, they are bound to have problems with the teachers, because ... they can't be still, while the training is all about keeping still."

A Better Way

Thankfully for compulsive gamers and other Internet addicts in the United States, treatment programs in this nation have not developed the reputation for brutality that is common in China.

As is the case with facilities that treat disorders such as compulsive gambling, sex addiction and eating disorders, the most effective treatment programs for Internet addiction are those that design individualized treatment plans that identify, assess and address all of the issues that are preventing clients from exercising appropriate control over their lives.

For example, at SUWS of the Carolinas, a therapeutic wilderness program for teens ages 10 to 17, young people receive intense clinical intervention services while progressing through a "search and rescue" program that is specifically designed to help clients overcome self-defeating behaviors.

At SUWS and other reputable therapeutic programs for young people, clients are treated with dignity and respect – and though the process of overcoming personal challenges can be difficult at times, the environment in which this progress is made is one of safety and support.

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