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A New ‘Cure’ for China’s Millions of Web Addicts: Hack Their Computer

A New ‘Cure’ for China’s Millions of Web Addicts: Hack Their Computer

In 2016, two scandals in China’s eastern Shandong province brought the reputation of the country’s “internet addiction boot camps” to an all time low. In August, the Internet Treatment Addiction Center in the large city of Linyi was reported to be using electroshock treatment on hundreds of its teenage patients in defiance of a ban issued by the Ministry of Health seven years prior. Then, in September, Chen Xinran, a 16 year-old girl who had escaped a treatment center in the city of Jinan, brutally murdered her mother in revenge for the abuses she had suffered at the hands of the institute’s administrators. Within a month of this matricide, the government began to draft new legislation to outlaw “abuse, coercion or other unlawful means” in the treatment of internet addicts. In September, a column in the state-run People’s Daily called on parents not to send children to these “prisons” and “madhouses” anymore.

But with 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 internet addicts — 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.

Two months after the Chen matricide case, this author made a trip to Happy Home Center’s headquarters, located in the high-end Government Works District of the provincial capital, Hefei. There he met with the center’s founder, 32 year-old Yu Qiang, who explained its unusual story in a wide-ranging two-hour interview.

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. As we sat at his terminal, Yu opened a task manager that could show, under each child’s name, the activity of the various programs that child was running. Yu’s QQ messenger account was also open so that he could update parents about their child’s online behavior and receive feedback. Offering an example, he picked up a black binder on his desk — one for each case — and showed the author careful notes he kept on a particular child’s school habits that were passed on to the child’s parents.

During the first three to seven days, this monitoring is relatively intense, with Yu checking in on the child every 30 minutes. “First, we have to get to know this child. How serious is his internet addiction? Can we actually solve his problem? Does he have a problem with violence? Does have a real mental illness like depression?” To this end the child’s email, messaging, and gaming accounts are all hacked for Happy Home Space to examine as if the child’s computer was one of its own. 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.

There’s little question that the ethics of this are troubling; but it’s legal, according to Yu. He says he has consulted with the police and learned of no law against monitoring a minor’s computer, as long as the parents consent. Even information about the child’s sexual orientation, if the parents ask for it, will be handed over. What if the parents learned through monitoring that their son were gay, and did not accept it? “That is their own business,” Yu responded. For his part, he is unlikely to be outed for his own role; parents must sign a confidentiality agreement promising never to tell their child about the treatment.

Yu readily admits he lacks formal training in psychology or sociology. But as someone born in the 1980s, he has the advantage of personal experience. “We were the first generation to come into contact with video games and are clearer than anyone else on how these games have evolved,” Yu said. He described himself as mildly enthralled by video games during high school, regularly haunting the internet bars of his native Lu An. He founded Happy Home Space in 2006, the year after he graduated, along with four other classmates from the Anhui College of Communication.

Those were the early years of internet addiction in China, a phenomenon that no one quite knew how to treat. The first internet boot camp opened in 2005 when Doctor Tao Ran, a People’s Liberation Army psychiatrist with the rank of colonel, began to “detox” web junkies at the Beijing Military General Hospital with a combination of medication, psychotherapy, and military discipline. Tao’s claims — that 76 percent of China’s juvenile criminals were internet addicts and that internet addiction was a psychlogical disorder akin to pathological gambling — fueled a climate of moral panic that facilitated the rise of the country’s poorly-regulated internet boot camp industry, which are distinct from outfits like Happy Home Space in their harsh methodology.

Tao Hongkai, the Communist Youth League’s former Ambassador for Internet Culture (no relation to Tao Ran), became the industry’s strongest critic. To open a boot camp, Tao Hongkai once observed, “all one has to do is rent a building with a courtyard, hire some ex-military servicemen and put out some discreet advertising referring to a ‘Training institute’ a ‘Boarding School for Troubled Youth’ or a ‘Youth Development Center.’” The result, some ten years later, is that there are now over 300 internet addiction treatment centers of varying quality throughout China.

The lack of regulation received public scrutiny in the aftermath of the Chan tragedy when parts of her online journals were discovered and published. Media and provincial-level government investigations later confirmed details of how students were usually forcibly enrolled at the Shandong Science and Technology Defense Training Institute via kidnappings that administrators arranged with parents. Students were sometimes punished by being forced to take meals next to excrement from latrines, and to clean out those latrines with their hands. They were also regularly cursed and beaten, sometimes expertly, so as not to leave marks. In one instance, a student’s jaw was broken. And yet such a boot camp was able to charge fees in the neighborhood of $580 a month.

As a long-time skeptic of internet boot camps, Tao Hongkai has argued that excessive internet use is not an individual pathology, but a symptom of broader contemporary social issues — in particular, parents smothering their children in the face of an overly competitive education system, the (recently revoked) one-child policy, and a culture of excessive materialism. Tao Hongkai, who has repeatedly contradicted Tao Ran’s views, sometimes in heated television debates, has proposed more effective dialogue between parents and children as the solution.

Over a decade later, the quarrel between the two Taos over the true nature of the problem — and how to solve it — rumbles on. Internet gaming addiction made it into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5 (DSM-5) in 2013, but only as “a condition warranting more clinical research and experience before it might be considered for inclusion in the main book as a formal disorder.” And while the vaguely defined term “internet addiction” seems to have stuck in the English-speaking world, the Chinese government has been much more careful to avoid language that recognizes it as a formal medical condition. In January, for instance, the draft of the “Regulations on the Protection of Minors Online” released in the wake of the Chen Xin Ran case was revised, and the term “internet addiction” replaced with the less charged “internet enthrallment.”

For his part, Yu, the Happy Home founder, views internet addiction not as an illness, but as a pastime that parents have allowed to get out of hand. “The kind of household in which the parents have overindulged or spoiled their child make up the majority of my cases,” he told Foreign Policy. “Eight — actually, nine — out of ten are like that.” Yu said one 17 year-old addict he tried to help hadn’t emerged from his bedroom for two years. Yu advised the parents to stop sending food up to the child in order to force him to emerge at mealtime. They responded that they would “rather die” than fail to feed their child. The sad result, as reported in the local Hefei Evening News, is that the child’s sedentary lifetime has so damaged his spine that a pronounced stoop has made him four inches shorter than before.

Games are the major culprit among Yu’s internet-addled patients. He says that for every ten patients, nine are hooked on online games, with the tenth suffering from other problems like pornography or excessive messaging. And of that group of ten patients, eight are boys and two are girls. The largest fraction of these are high-schoolers, followed by middle school and university students. (Yu says he occasionally gets the odd addict in his 30s, married and with children.) Yu notes that the proportion of his web-addicted middle-schoolers has grown in recent years; in other words, they are starting younger. Alarmingly, seven out of ten of all cases are school dropouts, logging on from their parents’ homes. “If their child were going to school normally,” Yu observes, “his mother and father wouldn’t need to seek me out.”

Yu’s ony praise for internet boot camps is that they force children to leave the house and get some exercise. “The big problem with boot camps,” Yu explained, ‘is that they forget that the child developed his condition at home. If you change his surroundings, he will no doubt behave better. But when he returns home, any new habits he learned at the boot camp will be replaced by the earlier ones. Problems that start at home need to be solved at home.” An expert recently put the relapse rate of internet addicts declared “cured” by treatment centers at 50 percent; there is much evidence that the children who return uncured are even more unmanageable, some perhaps dreaming, like Chen Xinran, of bloody revenge.

The sociologist Trent Bax of Erwhan’s Women’s University has also spoken out against internet boot camps in his forceful 2014 book, Youth and Internet Addiction in China. Bax told FP that “that humiliation, punishment, and confrontation” can often exacerbate the problems, given that “people learn best whey feel welcomed, respected, and safe.” He stressed that the key to helping internet-addled youth are good relationships. “The more ‘social capital’ someone has … the more likely they are to recover from addiction.”

Many of China’s more dubious boot camps don’t just treat internet addicts, but also drug addicts, truants, and other “problem” children. They thus assemble a motley crew that is probably quite aware that society regards it as strange. It’s worth noting that although the Chen murder case created a huge backlash against internet boot camps, Chen herself was not an internet addict; she was a school dropout with anger issues who had grievously stabbed her father during an argument. The treatment center that Chen’s parents forced her to attend claimed to treat not only internet addiction but also “puppy love, school hatred, rebelliousness, running away from home, truancy [and] disobedience,” through a bizarre curriculum that included exercise drills and memorizing the Confucian Classic of Filial Piety.

Yu predicts that the number of internet boot camps will continue to increase to keep pace with growing number of addicts. He sees it as a “system” that has become too entrenched for authorities to dismantle overnight.

Meanwhile, fresh scandals continue to emerge. In December 2016, a 16 year-old student at the Shandong Science and Technology Defense Training Institute fell from a fifth floor window, possibly while trying to escape. He was rushed to orthopedics suffering serious trauma. The police promised to investigate. That particular boot camp’s luck, at least, may have finally run out.

Image:  A young Chinese internet addict receives an electroencephalogram check at the Beijing Military Region Central Hospital July 6, 2005 in Beijing, China. By Cancan Chu/Getty