Logging out of an Internet addiction

Updated: 2013-12-13 08:06

By Yang Yang (China Daily)

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Logging out of an Internet addiction

Educators use music to help children kick their addiction to the Internet at Beijing Qide Education Center. China has 24 million Internet addicts, and most are aged between 12 and 18. Zou Hong / China Daily

Millions of teenagers caught in web of compulsive online game playing, Yang Yang reports in Beijing.

On an early November morning, 18-year-old Cheng Hang and his mother stepped down from the train into the cold Beijing air after traveling more than 800 kilometers overnight to the capital.

It was the third time they had visited the city in six months from Huai'an, Jiangsu province, traveling to hospitals they hoped would be able to cure Cheng's "disease".

This time around, they went to the Medical Addiction Division of the General Hospital of Beijing Military Region, which houses a center for Internet Addiction Disorders, known to experts as IAD.

Roughly 95 percent of the center's patients are addicted to online games. The regime is tough. Part of the treatment is based on military training techniques, which means the addicts rise at 6 am and spend an hour forming rows, standing to attention and marching.

"During the past year, we have been seeing doctors in Huai'an and nearby cities. Different doctors gave different diagnoses. Some prescribed antidepressants, while others insisted that my son is completely normal. But he often has headaches and can't stop himself from playing computer games," said Cheng's mother.

The young man, dressed entirely in black, said nothing for a long time. He stood in the corner of the hospital office and stared vacantly at his mother as she related the story.

When he eventually spoke, Cheng, who should have been preparing for the national college entrance exam in June, explained his problem self-consciously and briefly. He first became addicted to computer games almost two years ago after flopping a math test.

"I scored zero. I dared not tell my parents. But I was so frustrated and disappointed. So I went to an Internet bar with some classmates, kind of abandoning myself to computer games," he said. Gradually, he stopped going to school and spent days and nights at Internet bars, causing his parents great anxiety.

Cheng is one of 70 IAD patients at the hospital. China has 24 million Internet addicts, most are aged between 12 and 18, according to Tao Ran, the director of the medical addiction department, one of 40 specialist institutions offering help and treatment for the condition. A further 28 million Chinese teenagers use the Internet excessively and display addictive tendencies, he said.

Almost all the addictions are related to computer games, especially those played online. Experts say the condition can often be ascribed to an inappropriate family environment - where parents are excessively strict, or conversely not strict enough - and the heavy social pressures heaped on young people.

Groundbreaking discovery

Psychiatrists worldwide have long debated the status of Internet addiction and questioned whether it can be classified as a mental disorder. Earlier this year, the American Psychiatric Association included Internet Use Disorder in the fifth edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: "Internet Use Disorder is currently proposed for inclusion in Section 3, an area of DSM-5 for conditions requiring further study before they should be considered disorders," according to the association.

In January 2012, a research team led by Lei Hao of the Wuhan Institute of Physics and Mathematics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Hubei province, scanned the brains of 35 males and females aged between 14 and 21. Seventeen of the subjects were addicted to the Internet. The scans revealed that the changes in the white and grey matter in the brains of Internet addicts are similar to those displayed by drug addicts. It was a groundbreaking discovery in the study of IAD.

"We suspect that the changes may affect the addicts' behavior. For example, they are unable to control themselves and act on impulse. Many know it's wrong to miss school to play online games but they just can't control themselves. At the moment, though that just a hypothesis," said Lei.

The team plans to continue the research by collecting at least 30 brain scan samples from among Tao's patients to see if they will indicate changes in the brain before and after treatment.

"We want to find out whether Internet addiction changes the structure of the brain. If that's actually the case, our study will provide solid evidence for the diagnosis and treatment assessment for IAD," said Lei.

Internationally acknowledged methods of diagnosing IAD are now widely used. Depression is seen as a key indicator. Many addicts are depressed and anxious, and are unable or unwilling to communicate meaningfully with other people, including their parents.

One frequently asked question is whether depression leads to Internet addiction or vice versa. There is no definite answer, but based on his 10-year experience at the hospital, Tao believes that two thirds of the patients suffer from depression initially and their Internet addiction exacerbates the condition.

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