Death at Web Addiction Center Reflects Troubling Trend

China’s population of internet users broke 700 million this year, and government reports have estimated that over 20 million of those users suffer from internet addiction. For one of these addicts, 18-year-old Li Ao of Anhui Province, the search for a cure at one of China’s controversial internet addiction treatment centers led to his death less than two days later. At The Washington Post, Amy B Wang reports:

[…W]hen Liu Dongmei read about an -addiction treatment center in Fuyang city and the success stories it touted, she was hopeful it would help her son. The center promised gentler approaches, such as physical activity and psychological counseling, instead of the extreme treatments for which some of China’s other -addiction “boot camps” have gained notoriety.

On Aug. 3, Liu and her husband checked their son into the center. They had agreed to pay 22,800 yuan, or nearly $3,500, so Li Ao could stay 180 days.

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

Several days after his death, the distraught parents appeared on Anhui Television to describe what had happened to their son — and the shocking discovery they made when they saw his body at the mortuary: scars and bruises on his torso, arms and legs. […] [Source]

Coverage from the BBC notes the specific injuries Li had, and rounds up commentary from web users and from Chinese media on Li’s death:

[… Li’s] parents said they were told by doctors who examined their son’s body that he had sustained more than 20 external injuries, as well as several internal injuries. They were allowed to see his body in the mortuary.

[…] In the wake of the incident, many online and in newspaper editorials called for tighter regulation of addiction treatment centres – but also criticised the teenager’s parents.

“In the end this is due to a lack of family education,” said one commenter on microblogging platform Sina Weibo.

An editorial by the Mingguang Daily paper noted that “some parents, upon discovering the problem, fail to reflect on their responsibility to educate, and instead want to seek third parties’ help in solving the problem.” […] [Source]

A Chinese-language report from Xinhua sheds light on the center’s misleading claims and its shadowy operating status:

The center claimed teachers will be friends to their patients, and not engage in corporal punishment nor excessively upbraid students.

[…] It had been operating on an illegal basis since it opened in May of this year. In June, education authorities in Lujiang County’s Baishan Township had ordered the center—both orally and in written form—to shut down. Authorities also stated that if the center did not shut down by August 10, the government of Baishan Township, along with the education and public security bureaus, would forcefully shut it down. No one had anticipated that in the last few days before the deadline, such a tragedy would come to pass. [Chinese]

Nearly a decade ago, China officially declared internet addiction a disorder and provided its first diagnostic definition, which was later criticized both by addicts and by experts as vague with overly broad parameters.

Li’s case comes as the latest in a string of high-profile cases surrounding treatment centers. In 2009, a 15-year-old also in the Guangxi region died after being heavily beaten two days after he was admitted. In response to public outcry, China’s Ministry of Health advised a subsequently ill-enforced ban against curtailing patients’ freedom, locking them up, and relying on corporal punishment. The ministry also sought to end the longtime controversial practice of using electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) as a form of treatment and punishment for breaking center rules. ECT’s effectiveness and safety had repeatedly been questioned, and released patients had continued to show signs of psychological trauma.

In June 2014, a 19-year-old female died in Henan Province after being thrown to the ground repeatedly and kicked, even after vomiting blood and being unable to stand. Zhengzhou police later detained five trainers, who believed she was faking her injuries.

In September 2016, after spending four months against her will at a Shandong Province center and suffering physical and mental abuse, 16-year-old Chen Xinran escaped and returned home to take revenge on her family. She subsequently stabbed her father, starved her mother to death, and exacted ransom from her aunt.

In response to these incidents, many Chinese-language editorials have long called for tighter regulation of addiction treatment centers, or even outright abandonment of the institutions, which People’s Daily called “prisons” and “madhouses”.

In January of this year, China reportedly released its first to ban infliction of physical and mental harm to patients at internet addiction treatment centers. If passed, this law will also seek to more permanently end the practice of ECT after the Ministry of Health’s initial attempt at a ban eight years ago. The draft law’s third major component proposes requiring video game providers to ban minors’ access to gaming platforms from midnight to 8 am and curtail consecutive gaming hours. In response to growing concerns over children’s gaming habits, Tencent began shaving down minors’ login hours for its popular online game Honor of Kings, which has 50 million active daily users. Starting in early July, those under 12 have a one-hour daily limit, while 12-18 year olds are granted two hours. However, this has done little to cut the issue at its root, as advertisements for fake IDs specifically targeting young gamers are cropping up across Chinese social media.

As reports of maltreatment, psychological trauma, and death continue to tarnish the reputations of these “boot camps,” which now number over 300, an alternate, lesser-known remedy is beginning to gain acceptance. In April at Foreign Policy, Ricardo Lewis reported:

[…W]ith internet boot camps under a cloud, other treatments for China’s estimated 16 to 27 million internet addicts may have a chance to flourish. Among them is the small, unconventional Happy Home Space. Based in inland Anhui province, it has been called the “dark horse of the internet addiction treatment industry” in the local press. In its 10 years of operation, the center claims to have cured some 5,000 — each case requiring on average three months — at a fraction of the cost of an internet boot camp. More curious still, none of its young patients — some from as far away as Canada, Italy, and Malaysia — has ever actually walked through its doors. Everything is done remotely and clandestinely, by hacking into their computers. Only their parents and the Happy Home Space center ever know what happened.

[…] Unlike China’s internet “boot camps,” Happy Home Space approaches internet addiction in a highly tailored, if eerie, way. First, parents hire the center, at a monthly cost of over $200, to hack into their child’s computer using proprietary software.

[…] During the first three to seven days, this monitoring is relatively intense, with Yu checking in on the child every 30 minutes. […] Over time, the monitoring becomes less intense, but its purpose remains the same: to give parents enough information to be able to relate to their child again and also to make sure the child’s internet use remains within reasonable bounds. If it crosses those bounds, the Happy Home Center can launch attacks on a patient’s computer, from stealing accumulated in-game currency to disabling internet access. [Source]

Read past coverage of internet addiction, via CDT.