A leading medical expert said here on Tuesday that Internet addiction was a mental disease, defending a claim that has triggered widespread online debate since he made it earlier in November.
"Defining Internet addiction as a mental disorder does not discriminate against young people who are addicted to the Internet," said Tao Ran, who was in charge of drafting the Internet Disorder Diagnostic Manual for release earlier this month.
The manual, released by the Health Bureau of General Logistic Department of PLA China on Nov. 8, says that Internet addiction is a mental disease. People who have, for more than three months, stayed online for fun more than six hours per day with symptoms of showing no interest in other things and feeling restless if stopped from using the Internet, could be diagnosed as having Internet addiction.
Many people often took it for granted that mental disorders only referred to serious insanity, but in fact mental disorders were wide ranging and included depression, sleep disorder and anxiety disorder, Tao said.
"We all know addictions such as compulsive alcoholism and gambling are mental diseases. Internet addiction should also be included," Tao said.
Tao said he and 41 other doctors studied more than 1,300 computer users troubled with Internet addiction in the past four years. The symptoms listed in the manual were based on their clinical experiences.
The doctor said more than half of Internet addicts could be cured with psychological counseling, military training (or a regular routine with lots of exercise) or other methods which required no medication.
"But those with symptoms of depression and anxiety need medication. And if they don't receive medical treatment, they cannot recover from Internet addiction," he said.
Tao set up the country's first Internet addiction clinic at the Beijing-based Military General Hospital in 2005. The clinic has so far treated more than 3,000 addicts.
Fears were raised that Internet addicts could avoid their liability for committing crimes if the addiction was defined as a mental problem.
A young male Internet addict in Sichuan killed his parents and was sentenced to death in December 2007. Family members appealed his conviction earlier this month on the grounds that he was suffering from a mental problem, after the Internet disorder diagnostic manual was released.
According to China's Criminal Law, a person with a mental disorder who commits a crime when he is unable to control his own conduct is not responsible for his conduct.
Tao replied that sufferers of Internet addiction were aware of their conduct, which did not accord with the exemption clause in the Criminal Law.
The manual was initiated by the Health Bureau of the General Logistic Department of PLA China. It has been implemented in military hospitals, which are also open to the public, according to Tao.
Tao said the manual was also being submitted for approval from the Ministry of Health.
"If it is approved, it will be applied by hospitals, and all hospitals can then diagnose Internet addiction and admit patients."
An official with the Ministry of Health told Xinhua that the ministry did not know about the manual before it was revealed to the media.
"We have organized medical experts to study Internet addiction," the official said without giving further details.
China has the world's largest online population, including 40 million young people under the age of 18. Internet cafes in cities and towns are often crowded with mainly young men obsessed with online games.