Sinosphere: Electroshock Therapy for Internet Addicts? China Vows to End It

Sinosphere: Electroshock Therapy for Internet Addicts? China Vows to End It

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“It’s a very important move for protecting young children,” said Tao Ran, the director of the Internet Addiction Clinic at Beijing Military General Hospital.

Dr. Tao said that many Chinese parents believe that the effects of electroshock therapy are fleeting. But he had seen several Chinese teenagers return from boot camps that treat internet addiction showing signs of lasting psychological trauma, he said.

“They didn’t talk, were afraid to meet people and refused to leave their homes,” he said, referring to his meetings with the teenagers. “They were panicked even to hear the word ‘hospital’ and ‘doctor.’”

Qu Xinjiu, a law professor at China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, said the belief that parents have supreme jurisdiction over their children, and that even police officers have no right to intervene in family affairs, is widespread in China.

“That’s why there are so many parents sending their kids for electroshock therapy, even when outsiders think it’s wrong to do so,” Professor Qu said.

Figures on the number or growth of internet detox camps in China are scarce, but the camps’ methods have been generating concern for years.

The legislation would also limit how much time each day that minors could play online games at home or in internet bars. Providers of the games would be obliged to take measures to monitor and restrict use, such as requiring players to register under their real names.

The law does not yet specify the number of hours allowed, but minors would be prohibited from playing online games anywhere between midnight and 8 a.m.

Drugs at the Daxing Internet Addiction Treatment Center in Beijing in 2014.

Credit
Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

Dr. Tao said he doubted that the draft law, which was introduced by the State Council, China’s cabinet, could be enforced evenly nationwide. Provisions to limit the number of hours spent online probably could be easily flouted, he said.

Many users of Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, were even more critical, saying policing teenagers’ behavior online seemed impractical and ill-informed.

“I’m afraid it’s just empty talk,” a Sina Weibo user wrote.

“What about young kids who always go online on their cellphones?” another wrote. “Isn’t that also an addiction?”

Game providers and internet bars that did not enforce the law would be subject to fines and possible closure by the government.

Reports in the Chinese news media this week said that lawmakers would accept public comments on the draft law through early February but gave no indication of when it might be put into practice.

In 2009, the Chinese Health Ministry issued guidelines against using electroshock therapy for internet addicts. Trent M. Bax, the author of “Youth and Internet Addiction in China,” said that he wondered whether a ban would be any more effective.

Despite the Health Ministry’s policy, “punitive practices continue to victimize China’s youth” in internet detox camps, said Dr. Bax, an assistant professor of sociology at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, South Korea.

Researchers from Chinese, Taiwanese and German universities wrote in the journal Asia-Pacific Psychiatry in 2014 that the highest prevalence of “problematic internet use” worldwide had been observed in Asia. Christian Montag, the study’s lead author, said in an email on Thursday that South Korea had the world’s highest rate of problematic internet use, in part because of its large technology sector and online game market. South Korea also offers camps for internet addiction.

Recent scientific evidence indicates that the best treatments for digital addiction appear to be cognitive behavioral therapy in individual and group settings, which often include patients’ parents and significant others, said Daria J. Kuss, a specialist on internet and game addiction at Nottingham Trent University in Britain.

Dr. Kuss said that medication can also be effective, especially if internet addiction is accompanied by anxiety or mood disorders, such as depression. But beatings and electroshock therapy “are not commonly used in the treatment of internet and gaming addiction and are to be considered unethical and inhumane,” she said.

Officials and psychologists around the world have debated how to measure and regulate extreme internet use. A crucial question, analysts say, is whether to classify the problem as a psychological disorder or as a symptom of underlying disorders.

In a sign of how fluid the debate is in China, the Health Ministry said in 2009 that it would no longer use the term “addiction” to describe how the internet harmed people who used it improperly or excessively.

But a study the same year by the China Youth Association for Network Development, which is led by a committee under the ruling Communist Party, found that more than 24 million Chinese, age 13 to 29, who used the internet were digital addicts.

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