China's Internet addiction and its controversial 'cure'

Updated 2017-08-16 10:45:48 CGTN

A teenager died two days after he checked in to an Internet addiction camp, marking the latest tragedy at the hands of the alleged harsh addiction treatment centers in China.

On August 3, Liu Dongmei and her husband checked their 18-year-old son Li Ao into an Internet addiction treatment camp in Fuyang city in eastern China's Anhui Province to "cure" their child's uncontrollable use of the Internet. They paid 22,800 yuan, or nearly 3,500 US dollars, for Li's 180-day stay in the facility.

The center promised gentler approaches, such as physical activity and psychological counseling, instead of the extreme treatments which some camps are notorious for.

Two days later, they received a phone call. Li Ao had been taken to a hospital, where he died.

Li was found to have 20 external injuries and several internal ones, according to state media, though the exact cause of death remains unknown.

The local government shut down the center after the incident. The management and four instructors were detained by police and an investigation is under way, according to BBC.

Electronic heroin

In 2008, China became the first country to formally declare "Internet addiction" as a clinical disorder.

In 2011, Beijing Times reported about a Chinese man who died after gaming online for three days straight at an Internet café outside Beijing. In 2015, another man collapsed and died inside an Internet cafe in Shanghai after playing World of Warcraft for 19 hours straight. And in April, Xinhua reported about a 17-year-old gamer in southern China's Guangzhou who was diagnosed with cerebral infarction, after playing a popular online game for 40 hours nonstop.

In 2016, the total revenue of the games industry reached 165 billion yuan (24.7 billion US dollars), increasing by 17.7 percent from 2015. Despite this contribution to the economy, the way games are paid for still draws plenty of public criticism.

"Normal people can't imagine how these teenagers…use the Internet," Tao Ran, director of the Daxing Internet-Addiction Treatment Center, said in an interview with the New York Times. "Some kids are so hooked on these games. They think taking a restroom break will affect their performance at these games. So they wear a diaper. That's why we call it electronic heroin."

According to a report released by China Internet Network Information Center in January, 170 million under-18s are online in China. More than 24 million of which are considered "Internet addicts," spending more than 17 hours of screen time and game play on a daily basis.

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