Photo: R Pollard/Flickr CC 2.0 license:
Photo: R Pollard/Flickr CC 2.0 license:

The New York Times recently reported on the latest attempts by the Chinese State to rein in continued abusive practices at ‘Internet detox’ boot camps. As the leading voice in China promoting ‘Internet addiction,’ Tao Ran, director of the Internet Addiction Clinic at Beijing Military General Hospital, was asked to comment on the State Council’s drafting of a regulation that would ban electroshock therapy and other abusive or coercive treatment methods. Dr Tao called the proposed legislative changes “a very important move for protecting children.” But as I have documented in “Youth and Internet Addiction in China,” far from being a protective voice of reason for China’s youth, Dr Tao has been accused of inflicting the very same abusive practices he now condemns.

In violation of the China-ratified UN Charter Against Torture, Tao’s mostly 15-18-year-old ‘patients’ have reportedly been put in solitary confinement in order to teach them ‘how to behave.’ They have also been force-fed unknown sedative-based medication in order to make them more ‘compliant,’ and have been forced to write ‘confession letters’ in order to be released. And then there are the harsh military drills and other ‘disciplinary’ practices, which are a common feature of the reportedly 300 or so military-style boot camps across China. Tragically, such punitive methods used by boot camps have resulted in a number of deaths.

The State Council’s rapid-fire drafting of anti-abuse regulations was prompted by the actions of a 16-year-old girl. Claiming to have been beaten and mistreated at an Internet addiction treatment facility in Jinan, Shandong Province, she unleashed vengeance on her mother for sending her there. She put her mother through living hell by tying her to a chair, whereupon she slowly starved to death.

This case brought to attention abusive practices at the nearby ‘Internet Addiction Treatment Center’ in Linyi, which was found to have subjected some of the 6,000 ‘Internet addicts’ to electroshock therapy. But what is even more shocking is the fact that the Ministry of Health hastily banned the use of electroshock therapy in 2009, after the director of this same government-run center, Dr Yang Yongxin, was discovered to have illegally used electroshock treatment on 3,000 young people under the guise of ‘curing Internet addiction.’

People were shocked to learn that Dr Yang’s therapy was carried out under the approval and even supervision of their parents. By putting their faith in medical and military professionals, concerned parents hope that a quick end to their child’s disobedience will hopefully mean securing the (economic) future life of both the child and themselves. The parents are acting in response to a very real fear that the only-child’s successful future may never be realized because they refuse to stop gaming and start studying. Their children, meanwhile, not only face stress and pressure to achieve within an excessively competitive education system, but are also subject to maladaptive (often including violent) parental and socialization methods.

In a forthcoming book (“Crime and the Chinese Dream”), I analyse Dr Yang’s conduct through the Orwellian and Kafkaesque strategy of ‘shock-and-awe’ made infamous by the Bush Administration in Iraq. The shock-and-awe style approach to ‘curing Internet addiction’ highlights the inhumane pseudo-scientific methods that have been employed by military-style boot-camps across China as a way to ‘tame’ disobedient youth.

Dr Yang’s extreme form of shock-and-awe is premised upon the notion that the electroshocks can destroy the will of the ‘Internet addict’ to resist. The goal is therefore not to ‘cure’ their ‘Internet addiction,’ but rather to ‘soften’ them up by producing a kind of hurricane in their mind. It is in this state of shock and fear that they are meant to give Dr Yang, and by proxy their parents, what they want: that they will stop playing on the internet and, instead, concentrate on studying. Yet such methods can, and do, cause an aversion, even hatred, for their parents. This may result in the child vengefully spending even more time playing online (and still refusing to do study).

This hastily enacted ban on electroshock therapy in 2009 has obviously not prevented continued shock-and-awe of China’s youth. Like fellow non-democratic states, China is not short of regulations. In an endemically corrupt political-and-economic environment, it is the lack or selective enforcement of regulations that is problematic. Working hand-in-hand, public officials, military personnel, mental health professionals and private entrepreneurs are getting wealthy off the backs of young people and their parents as China’s citizens try their best to navigate the turbulent seas of a disorienting modernization process.

The important question to ask these boot-camp operators is: Does using coercion and punishment to treat an addiction actually work? For an answer, we can turn to Maia Szalavitz’s new book on addiction, titled “The Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary Way of Understanding Addiction.” Szalavitz defines addiction as “compulsive use of a substance, or compulsive engagement in a behavior, despite ongoing negative consequences.” Since ‘negative consequences’ is just another word for ‘punishment’ then Szalavitz says we will get nowhere trying to use punishment to fight a problem that is literally defined by resistance to punishment.

Szalavitz notes about 90% of all substance addictions start in adolescence and most end by age thirty. Additionally, only 10-20% users of heroin, cocaine and meth actually become addicted. Thus mere exposure to a drug, or pleasurable activity like online gaming, does not make a person susceptible to addiction. If a person becomes an addict it is because they were already susceptible. As Szalavitz demonstrates, the road to addiction is paved with childhood trauma (along with a predisposition to mental illness). In essence, the more discomfort, trauma and pain, the greater the risk of addiction.

We therefore need to be mindful that a large percentage of those being sent to boot-camps cannot be considered ‘addicted’ to the internet/online games. Most are ‘deviant’ and not ‘mental disordered.’ It is, after all, in the economic interests of these boot camps to inflate the problem so that most teens brought to their attention can be considered to ‘require’ (expensive) treatment. It is therefore important to ascertain the small percentage of young people with underlying susceptibility whose internet-based behavior is negatively impacting on their lives and the lives of their loves ones – and they persist despite recognizing the negative consequences.

Szalavitz argues that contrary to the idea that punishment, shocks, or ‘tough love’ aids recovery from addiction, that the more ‘social capital’ someone has – family, friends, education, employment, etc. – the more likely they are to recover. Not only is humiliation, coercion, and confrontation not helpful for recovery, but, on the contrary, it is more likely to lead to worsening addictions and greater numbers of treatment dropouts. Also against a ‘confrontational’ approach to treating addiction is the harm reduction method, which recognizes that people learn best when they feel welcomed, respected, and safe.

Despite the Chinese government’s regulations largely falling on deaf ears, it is still a positive sign to see changes in the law to reduce punishment and abuse at these boot-camps. From a practical standpoint, making such facilities more humane and harm reduction-centered would actually help them better deal with the problem of juvenile delinquency. And more importantly, the young people caught in this web would be better served.

Trent Bax teaches and researchers within the area of ‘sociology of deviance.’ Trent’s research is focused on juvenile delinquency in East Asia. Trent has published academic work on illegal immigrants, male migrant hairdressers and ‘Internet addicts’ in China, and on perpetrators of bullying and violence in South Korea.

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