September 7, 2007

Internet Addiction in China

The first time I saw internet addiction officially announced as a problem among China’s youth was in an article about a December, 2006 report from the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League. The report estimated that more than two million Chinese children and teenagers were addicted to the internet. The situation was called a “severe social problem that could threaten the nation’s future.”

Internet addiction in China is described in soft psycho-social terms, rather than in hard measures of hours online. Symptoms of addiction are listed as depression, fainting, muscle weakness, anorexia, and a “preoccupation with the internet.” Consequences of the addiction include a “loss of control” over time spent online, a disintegration of relationships in real life, trouble in school, and obsessions leading to suicide and murder.

Over the last 10 months, I have read many articles in China’s English language press that have chronicled various attempts to rein in the youth internet addiction problem.

First came the licensed internet addiction clinics, which are run as quasi-boot camps. Youngsters do morning military training, have sessions with psychologists, take medications or receive acupuncture. They take various afternoon arts and sports classes, write in their journals and watch movies. The cost for the camp in Beijing is steep: 9300 yuan per month (about $1200), in a city where the average salary in 2004 was 2500 yuan per month (a little more than $320).

Then came the clampdown on internet cafes and on games themselves. In March of 2007 came an order forbidding the opening of any new internet cafes, where young people typically play their online games. Children under 18 years old were prohibited from using the cafes. Games were required to include a “fatigue system” in their software, whereby playing time is restricted or scores will be penalized.

This past summer outside Shanghai, an “E-Sunshine” camp was offered to internet addicts and their parents. It was a much more friendly sounding kind of “family” camp than the early boot-camp-like version, and offered exposure to a lot of nature, survival training, and psychological assistance. The Shanghai Daily reported that only half the registrants showed up, because “their parents couldn’t drag them away from their computers.”

Another program described a kind of intervention effort. If a neighborhood committee (what Americans might recognize as a very involved neighborhood watch group) noticed young people behaving like internet addicts, they notified a volunteer group called E-Workshop, which was dedicated to helping internet addicts. The volunteers would pester the internet addicts until they agreed to come to the workshop, whose purpose is to demonstrate ways to make the internet work for them, through online jobs or businesses.

Here is what I find interesting about coverage of internet addiction in China: First, there is an official announcement of internet addiction as a very serious national problem. Next, there are official (if fuzzily-based) estimates on the number of young internet addicts. Finally, there are both straight reporting and heavily-researched feature stories about different ways internet addiction is being addressed. Compared to many things I read about in the press in China, this topic seems heavily and persistently reported.