BEIJING - The 12 teenagers and young adults, some in ripped jeans and baggy T-shirts, sit in a circle, chewing gum and fidgeting as they shyly introduce themselves. "I'm 12 years old," one boy announces with a smile. "I love playing computer games. That's it." "It's been good to sleep" says another, a 17-year-old with spiky hair, now that he's no longer on the computer all day.
The youths are patients at China's first officially licensed clinic for Internet addiction, a downside of the online frenzy that has accompanied the nation's breathtaking economic boom.
"All the children here have left school because they are playing games or in chat rooms everyday," says the clinic's director, Dr. Tao Ran. "They are suffering from depression, nervousness, fear and unwillingness to interact with others, panic and agitation. They also have sleep disorders, the shakes and numbness in their hands."
According to government figures, China has the world's second-largest online population -- 94 million -- after the United States.
While China promotes Internet use for business and education, government officials also say Internet cafes are eroding public morality. Authorities regularly shut down Internet cafes -- many illegally operated -- in crackdowns that also include huge fines for their operators. State media has also highlighted cases of obsessed Internet gamers, some of whom have flunked out of school, committed suicide or murder. Nonetheless, Internet cafes continue to thrive, with outlets found in even the smallest and poorest of villages.
Most are usually packed late into the night. Dr. Kimberly Young, a Bradford, Pa., clinical psychologist whose 1998 book on Internet addiction has been translated into Chinese, says she's not surprised the Chinese would face problems with Internet overuse. "They are catching up with a lot of our technology, and certainly at that juncture, are now able to run into some of the same difficulties," Young said. While treatment programs were virtually nonexistent in the United States a decade ago, she said, dozens of clinics and countless individual therapists such as herself offer counseling and treatment in her country.
Programs are growing elsewhere, too. Just a few years ago, Young says, she attended a conference in Switzerland where she was the only American out of some 200 academics and clinicians who gathered to address Internet addiction.
Tao's government-owned clinic, which began taking patients in March, occupies the top floor of a two-story building on a quiet, tree-lined street on the sprawling campus of the Beijing Military Region Central Hospital in the heart of the Chinese capital. A dozen nurses and 11 doctors care for the patients, mostly youths aged 14 to 24 who have lost sleep, weight and friends after countless hours in front of the computer, often playing video games with others online. Some come voluntarily, while others are checked in by their parents. Many say their online obsessions helped them escape day-to-day stress, especially pressure from parents to excel in school. Some can't stop playing games, while the older ones tend to be addicted to online chats with the opposite sex, Tao says. Others are fixated on designing violent games. Tao, a psychiatrist for 20 years who specializes in treating addiction, estimates that up to 2.5 million Chinese suffer from Internet addiction, though others are skeptical.
"As the number of the Netizens grows, the number of the addicted people will grow as well, but we should not worry about the issue too much," says Kuang Wenbo, a professor of mass media at Beijing's Renmin University. "The young men at the age of growing up have their own problems. Even if there was no Internet they will get addicted to other things."
A reporter was allowed to talk to patients at the clinic on condition they not be identified by name.
"I wasn't normal," said a 20-year-old man from Beijing who used to spend at least 10 hours a day in front of the screen playing hack-and-slash games like Diablo. "In school I didn't pay attention when teachers were talking," he said. "All I could do was think about playing the next game. Playing made me happy, I forgot my problems."
The 12-year-old, a new arrival, spent four days in an Internet cafe, barely eating or sleeping.
A soft-spoken 21-year-old man from northeastern Heilongjiang province who had been in the clinic for 10 days said his addiction had helped him escape from family pressures about his studies. "I would stay up for 24 hours. I would eat only in front of the computer," he said.
Tao's team has put together a standard diagnostic test to determine whether someone is addicted, then uses a combination of therapy sessions, medication, acupuncture and sports like swimming and basketball to ease patients back into normal lives. They usually stay 10 to 15 days, at $48 a day -- a high price in China, where the average city dweller's weekly income is just $20. The routine begins around 6 a.m. and includes sessions on a machine that stimulates nerve impulses with 30-volt charges to pressure points. Some patients receive a clear fluid through intravenous drips said to "adjust the unbalanced status of brain secretions," according to one nurse. Officials would not give any other details about the medication. Patients also nap, write diary entries or play cards. Their rooms are sunny, each decorated with artificial flowers, Winnie the Pooh comforters and a 17-inch television. Tao says the long-term effects of treatment are generally successful, but it's not easy to keep patients from again giving themselves over to Internet temptation. "It would be hard to give it up completely," said the 20-year-old from Beijing. "I'll take it step-by-step."