Internet addicts a virtual nightmare for parents
By Wang Shanshan(China Daily)
Updated: 2006-12-09 08:16

A place without Internet access. It may provide a sanctuary for a while a nice getaway but how long before you start feeling a little unsettled, even isolated?

The Internet has become a more and more important part of life, and it can be totally irresistible in the eyes of children and teenagers.

China has the world's second-largest population of Internet users 123 million after the United States, and an astounding 15 per cent of the netizens are under 18, according to a report published last week by the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League of China.

Of these 18.3 million children and teenage users, more than 2 million are suffering from Internet addiction, the report stated.

"The prevailing Internet addiction among China's younger generation has grown into a severe social problem that could threaten the nation's future," it said.

Moreover, this Internet problem is still in its infancy, and shortcomings in family values and school education will only aggravate the problem if they are not corrected, educators and doctors say.

The government pledged to take action, as requested by parents of underage addicts, in an open letter in June, but the nature of the Internet is making it difficult to legislate this online frenzy away.

Professional Internet addiction clinics and self-help clubs for parents have opened, and psychiatrists have offered treatments from taking traditional Chinese medicines to military training. Even so, there are still far from enough places where these children and their parents can find help.

As a result, only a decade after the Internet stretched into China, stories abound about lives being shattered because of a compulsion to surf the Internet.

And yet for many young people, the Internet is a sanctuary.

"I have so many problems, and I have no way to solve them so I get online," Pang, a 17-year-old boy in Nanjing, capital of East China's Jiangsu Province, told China Daily.

Pang is the sole hope of his single mother, who divorced his father when he was four. To help him excel in his future career, she sold her only major property, an apartment, to get money for him to study in the United States, the United Kingdom or Australia after he graduates from senior middle school.

Currently, the outlook isn't bright. Although Pang's marks were good before senior middle school, they aren't now. He is often missing from classes, and the only place to find him has been the Internet caf.

One night last year, his family his mother, five uncles and aunts and a dozen cousins searched for him in the hundreds of Internet cafs around Nanjing after he went missing for nearly three days.

Desperate to keep Pang away from computers, his mother sent him to a school in a rural area. It didn't work; he would walk four hours to an Internet caf in the city.

"I wasn't normal," the boy said. "I can't leave the Internet. I live in a virtual world. It's like my life the other one."

Even worse is the case of 13-year-old Zhang Xiaoyi, who paid the ultimate price for his obsession. Near the end of 2004, he rode a lift to the top of a 24-storey building in Tianjin in North China and jumped to his death.

His suicide note explained that he wanted to enter another life and meet the characters from the online games he played, sometimes for days in a row. He left behind four volumes of diaries, amounting to 80,000 words, all about his "life" in the world of virtual reality.

"He threw himself into an imaginary world," said Zhang's tearful father.

What to look for

Despite the miseries of its victims, Internet addiction is not formally recognized as a mental health disorder, according to Tao Hongkai, professor of education at the Central China Normal University in Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province, who is regarded as China's leading researcher on Internet addiction.

However, there are symptoms or behaviour that, when present in sufficient numbers, may indicate problematic use.

A few characteristics are shared by adults as well as children and teenagers, such as a "preoccupation with the Internet," or users often thinking about the Internet while they are offline, and the "loss of control," manifested by users who originally sit down to check e-mail or look up a bit of information and end up staying online for hours.

Other symptoms can be much more serious. Similar to Zhang's suicidal case, Web-based relationships often cause those involved to spend excessive amounts of time online, attempting to make connections with and date people on the Internet.

The addiction reaches an extreme when marked by the loss of a significant relationship in real life. Over time, Internet relationships may fail as partners get into disagreements and simply decide it's easier to walk away.

On the whole, children and teenagers are more susceptible to the magic of the Internet, said Tao, the educator.

When problems occur, he said, it is the parents who are mostly to blame. The situation can be especially severe in China because of the importance of the family in Asian values.

"Many Chinese parents don't know how to communicate effectively with their children or even to use the Internet," he told China Daily. "All they can do is drag their children away from the computer by force."

What's more, parents' overprotectiveness has led to a prevalent lack of independent spirit and willpower among the children, who are simply unable to separate from the Internet, he added.

Teachers should also share the responsibility, Tao said. It is partially because of the pressure they feel regarding the overemphasis on test scores that children retreat behind their keyboards.

For example, Pang, the addicted boy whose mother sold her apartment, is probably finding virtual reality an escape from the great expectations for his future, Tao said.

Help on the horizon

Fortunately, authorities and institutions have started to help addicts such as Pang and their parents.

Last month, the Guangzhou Women's Association organized China's first self-help club for parents of underage Internet addicts. An employee of the association, Li, told China Daily more than 100 parents have already come to the club and the membership is growing daily.

These parents will become familiar with the Internet and learn about ways to help their children, she said. All the courses are free of charge.

Also, China's first licensed clinic for Internet addiction opened last year in Beijing, along with three others this year in Guangzhou, capital of South China's Guangdong Province; Shijiazhuang, capital of North China's Hebei Province; and Ningbo of East China's Zhejiang Province.

At the Beijing clinic on the suburban grounds of the Beijing Military Region Central Hospital, a dozen nurses and 11 doctors take care of about 50 patients, mostly boys and young men aged 10 to 25.

Some of the patients come voluntarily, and others are checked in by their parents. They have a busy schedule at the clinic: They get up at 6 am and go running for two hours until 8:30 am. Then they receive military training until lunchtime. After lunch they talk with their psychologists. Some must take medicine or have acupuncture.

In the afternoon, from 2:30 pm to 5 pm, they have music and painting classes, or basketball and yoga lessons. After dinner they write diaries as requested by their doctors and then watch a movie.

Once a week they will have a mock gunfight, if only to experience its difference from playing a computer game; that is, they have to sweat.

Their parents are paying 9,300 yuan (US$1,189) per month, which is a high price even in Beijing, where the average monthly salary in 2004 was 2,500 yuan (US$320).

Tao Ran, director and founder of the clinic, told China Daily that his clinic had released about 400 patients, and more than 80 per cent were "basically recovered" by the time they left

Even so, "Treatment at the clinic is merely a start," he said. "The following family intervention is vital to fundamental change in the children."

Curiously, Huang, a doctor at the clinic, said it is more difficult to change the parents than their children.

"If parents don't make life for their children more cheerful, it is not easy to keep them from again giving themselves over to the temptation of the Internet ," he said.

Pang's mother in Nanjing told China Daily she is considering sending him to a clinic.

"One of my friends sent her boy to the Beijing clinic," she said. "After one month, the boy has at least been more polite to his parents.

"It would be hard for a child to give it up completely. Let's just do it step by step."

(China Daily 12/09/2006 page3)