Christopher Stewart’s article, “The Lost Boy” in the February 2010 issue of Wired magazine (not yet available online, apparently) relates horrifying tales of abuse in Chinese “Internet Addiction Camps” for youth. Since 2002 when state-run newspapers started sharing stories about the dangers of Internet addiction, thousands of worried Chinese parents have sent their allegedly Internet-addicted children (remember, because of China’s one child policy that means parents’ ONLY child) to these camps. According to the article, even though some government regulations have been imposed following the death of camper Deng Seshan on the day of his arrival at an addiction camp, “There are thought to be between 300 and 400 camps in China” today.

Internet addiction appears to be a universal problem, transcending geographic and cultural differences. I wrote about Internet addiction in November 2009 in my post, “Internet addiction a growing concern.” Musician John Mayer called on all his fans at the start of this year to take on his challenge of a “one week digital cleanse,” to address (among other things) our hyper-connected proclivity to spend too much time online with screens of various sizes to the detriment of our face-to-face relationships.

lots of pink screens

These issues hit close to home for me, since I spend large amounts of time online each week for both work and pleasure. Several years ago my wife and I took a 40 day “evening technology fast,” which was similar in many ways to Mayer’s “digital cleanse.” While I definitely acknowledge the potential for digital technologies (including gaming) to become addictive, it is shocking to hear how out-of-control Chinese entrepreneurs’ efforts to prey on parents’ concerns for their children’s digital habits have become. Consider the following story from Stewart’s Wired article:

One of the first signs that things had gotten out of hand in China’s Internet-addiction camps was the emergence of Uncle Yang — Yang Yongzin– a psychiatrist who opened a treatment center at a state-owned hospital in eastern Shandong Province in 2006. His camp was one of hundreds that had sprung up in China– many of them unregulated, uncredentialed, and relying on a grab bag of treatments: antidepressants, counseling, even intense physical exertion. (One sent its young clients on a 528 mile trek through Inner Mongolia.) What began as a fairly well-regarded and disciplined approach had spun into a growth industry, packed with untrained entrepreneurs.

Yang was not a psychotherapist, nor was he licensed to administer electroshock. But that didn’t matter. He claimed to know what he was doing. “It will clear the mind,” he promised. He charged almost $900 per month– a remarkable sum for a country in which the average monthly wage is around $400. Still, some 3000 desperate parents sent their kids to him for four-month stints. The media hailed Yang as a “national Web-addiction expert,” recounting his heroic tales of life at his rehab center. Even after Yang’s methods were deemed excessive– in July, Chinese authorities banned electroshock as an Internet-addiction treatment, claiming the tactic required further study– his services were reportedly still in demand.

The main tragedy of this article, the untimely and unnecessary death of Deng Seshan, is heart wrenching. Deng was beaten and forced to run laps until collapsing the first day he arrived at his “Internet Addiction Camp,” dropped off by parents who hoped the experience would help him regain his academic focus and outstanding grades in school. Again according to Stewart’s article:

After the beating, Deng Senshan was carried trembling to his bunk, shouting, “They’re killing me,” and bleeding from his mouth, ears, eyes, and nose. The counselors left him there for hours before dispatching a car to take him to the hospital. At around 3 am, 14 hours after arriving at the camp, he was pronounced dead.

The local government reportedly “sacked” several journalists who covered the story of Deng Senshan’s death, in one case because a reporter “had ‘angered top officials’ in exposing ‘the weakness in governance.'” Deng’s death could not be kept quiet, however. In November 2009 his parents “were compensated” by the government for his death, and “China’s Ministry of Health drafted guidelines for boot camps…..”

Many things are remarkable and thought provoking about this article and situation. In my third visit to China this past fall, some of the stories told by members of our international contingent about the night club behavior they witnessed of many “only child” Chinese sons got me thinking more about the psychological effects of China’s one child policy. Stewart’s article brings this issue up dramatically as well. Are Chinese parents afraid or unable to discipline their own children and impose behavioral limits on them? That wouldn’t be a big surprise I’m sure, many U.S. families have trouble with this also.

I have heard some observers contend today’s “only children” in China (particularly boys) are often lavished with more attention and privileges than any previous generation. After all, the ONLY child of a family may be their ONLY hope for not only continuing the family line but also supporting aging family members in the future. The stakes are high, and so are the pressures. But how could Chinese parents who love and cherish their children so much send them off to these horrible “Internet addiction camps” where physical abuse and even torture have reportedly been commonplace?

The relatively closed nature of Chinese society and media outlets certainly contribute to this situation. I’m sure many parents are unsure of how to deal with these issues and problems, however, and turning their child over to “experts” regarded as credible and reliable by state-run news agencies therefore seems like a reasonable option.

It’s hard to get kids to part with their digital devices. This weekend, I heard a parent relate a story from last year regarding her daughter and her cell phone. When asked what she wanted for Mother’s Day, she told her daughter she wanted an entire weekend where her cell phone (the daughter’s) was turned off and put away. The daughter grudgingly agreed and “gave” her mother her requested “cellular weekend fast,” but by Sunday the daughter was experiencing visible distress that she could not use her cell phone. Digital addictions can unquestionably have powerful psychological effects, and like many other psychological issues it’s normal and desirable for parents to look for help outside their home. It’s tragic, however, in the case of China that so many “Internet Addiction Camps” have gone over to the dark side.

Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

My heart and prayers go out to Deng Fei and Zhou Juan for the death of their only son, Deng.

I encourage you to check out this article in the print edition of Wired Magazine (Feb 2010) or when the online version is published.

What should we be doing in our homes and communities to address Internet addiction issues? On the one hand, I can see this as yet another PTA program in which a presenter condemns the evils of modern technology to the nodded assent of parents already sensitized to dangers of online chat rooms and social networking sites. We do not need more wild-eyed presenters fanning the flames of fear and ignorance in the minds of parents. What we need instead is encouragement to lead balanced lives and to keep open lines of communication in our homes and classrooms. Thank goodness we have not seen the rise of “Internet Addiction Camps” (here in the U.S.) like those in China described by Stewart in this article. Our freedom of expression, freedom to organize, and freedom of the press are all Constitutional guarantees we should never take for granted, nor undervalue for the benefit they bring to us as individuals and a society.

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