Boot Camp for Juvenile Internet Addicts?

Boot Camp for Juvenile Internet Addicts?

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We’ve got a lot of Internet junkies throughout the globe, and China leads the pack with a supposed 24 million adolescents hooked. Parents and shrinks there, understandably, are starting to freak. Sure kids will be kids, but it puts more than a snag in their daily lives when, allegedly, they isolate from friends and family for up to 20 hours a day, blow off their studies and undergo such drastic social atrophy that their brains lose eight percent of their functional capacity.

But psychiatrist Tao Ran, a colonel in the People’s Liberation Army as well as an addiction specialist, has just the solution for these troublemakers—an army-like rehab where they’re cut off from the outside world for three to six months with no Internet or electronics, forced to wear camouflage military attire and must follow orders like militant little soldiers.

Ran defines Internet addiction as staying online for more than six hours per day and believes that the litany of damages incurred when kids are addicted to the Internet includes severe depression, bad eyesight, strained backs, eating disorders and even the likelihood of attacking their parents.

Many of these Internet addicts become more than just socially aloof F students— Internet addicts commit a startling 67% of juvenile misdemeanors in China. These adolescents often idolize the mafia in their video games, and this absorption in a fantasy world makes it difficult for them to distinguish the true from the false; apparently they start to believe that they are immune to consequences.

Ran believes these boys—and a few girls—need to be broken, well, like horses. The kids come in with snarky attitudes and little discipline, so he not only makes them run laps and do push-ups but also punishes them for misbehavior.

“They are very arrogant when they arrive but in bad physical shape,” says Ma Liqiang, a former soldier and now the behavior instructor at Daxing, Ran’s boot camp. “They fall apart when they have to run or do push-ups. This puts them in their place.”

It’s a controversial deal. Sure it’s important to break Internet-addicted kids of their electronic vices, but to subject them to the brutal discipline at Ran’s outpost—really?

Photos taken from the Daxing center are pretty harrowing. One kid is hooked up to a bunch of electrodes to have EEG readings on his brain activity, while other adolescents grimace in pain after being punished with a set of push-ups.

Dr. Tao Hongkai, an anti-video game activist, thinks Ran’s methods aren’t effective at halting the addictive patterns, while Trent Bax, a doctor from New Zealand, is sure the stuff going on at Daxing is a form of actual torture. Yet according to Ran, he achieves a 75% success rate with all the kids who complete the program; of course this figure is impossible to substantiate.

Skeptics believe that Internet addiction is a social deviation—a cognitive and behavioral problem. Ran, on the other hand, thinks it’s a medically curable disease.

Certainly Internet addiction is a real problem, and it’s growing increasingly widespread among both adolescents and adults worldwide. It’s clearly important for psychiatrists and addiction specialists to want to take action.

But to subject minors to the rigor and militarism of rehabilitation centers like Daxing? Talk about over the top, not to mention unnecessary and ultimately dangerous. Surely there are less-abusive means to achieve abstinence. Even if inpatient treatment is required, confiscating devices, making the kids clean bathrooms and cook in the kitchen—like they would in many rehabs—might be enough to foster discipline and knock off the acting out.

Of course none of these kids will be able to find those other options online.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.