A Chinese teenager’s death is exposing the horrors of internet addiction bootcamps

Work that internet obsessiveness out?
Work that internet obsessiveness out?
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
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When nagging stops working, exasperated Chinese parents will sometimes turn to military-style bootcamps to help their children beat their internet addiction, viewed by many as a mental disorder. But a couple who enrolled their 18-year-old son into one such facility didn’t get what they were promised. Less than 48 hours after their son checked in, he was dead.

The incident has exposed the horrors of these controversial bootcamps and sparked outrage on Chinese social media. A 2010 report by China Youth Association for Network Development, an organization affiliated with the Communist Party, claims China has 24 million internet addicts (link in Chinese) between the ages of six and 29. The alarm around this phenomenon has given rise to more than 300 military-style internet treatment camps in China, according to Chinese state broadcaster CGTN—some of which, like the Hefei Zhengneng Education, where Li Ao was being treated, operate illegally.

Concerned with their son’s well-being, the parents of Li paid 22,800 yuan ($3,408), including a 1,000 yuan ($149) deposit (link in Chinese), for his 180-day treatment beginning Aug. 3 in central Anhui province. His mother, Liu Dongmei, said an instructor at the facility reassured her the staff would use counseling and physical activity to help their son, and avoid extreme treatments like electric shock therapy and sleep deprivation. An autopsy performed on Aug. 6 (link in Chinese), however, revealed more than 20 external injuries and several internal ones.

After Li’s death, the local government shut down Hefei Zhengneng Education. The local government said it had given multiple warnings (link in Chinese) to the facility in early June, a month after it opened, yet it had continued to operate. Five employees from the institute are under custody, according to local police.

On Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, internet users are fuming at how widespread such treatment facilities are in the country. Some also pointed out the role of Li’s parents. ”His parents are responsible too since they were the ones who sent the kid to the center,” wrote one user (link in Chinese).

The brutal methods of internet-addiction treatment centers have come to light in recent years as more media reports show the physical and psychological toll they have on the people they are supposedly trying to help. In late July, a 16-year-old boy leapt from the fifth floor of a treatment center in the northern city Xi’an after spending several months there. Last September, a 16-year-old girl from China’s northeastern province Heilongjiang reportedly tied up and killed her mother after being held in an internet addiction bootcamp for four months.

China’s health ministry in 2009 had ordered a mental health hospital in the northeastern Shandong province to stop using electric shock therapy after nearly 3,000 youths had undergone it, saying at the time there wasn’t scientific evidence showing it could cure internet addiction. Earlier this year, the country vowed to end the practice entirely (paywall).