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  • Internet addiction: deadly pathology or just a nice substitute for TV?

    This week 15-year-old Deng Senshan died from beatings while being treated for internet addiction at a Chinese internet rehabilitation clinic.

    China considers the internet users pathological as well as criminal, so not only does the government deploy 30,000 internet police to patrol the country’s firewall to make sure that 300 million Chinese surfers aren't posting anything subversive, but it also funds eight centers to treat the growing numbers of young internet addicts.

    These internet rehab “clinics” – actually prison-like facilities with metal grates, barred windows, and padlocked doors – treat compulsive surfers for 7,000 Yuan (about $1,024) a month with methods that include corporal punishment, drugs, hypnosis, and electroshock. China’s Health Ministry recently banned shock therapy for internet-related psychiatric disorders, and authorities are now investigating the Guangxi clinic where the beating occurred.

    While this may be the first death from internet addiction treatment, internet addiction itself can be fatal (click here for scientific proof of the dangers of the net). China banned teens from internet cafés after two middle school students fell asleep on some railway tracks after a two-day internet session and were killed by a train. In South Korea, the most-connected country in the world, ten people have died from blood clots from sitting too long at internet cafés and another was murdered after an online gaming dispute. Korea calls internet addiction one of its greatest public health risks, with 210,000 children requiring psychotropic drugs or even hospitalization to correct aberrant online behavior.

    China’s health officials call this new disease Internet Addiction Disorder. Major symptoms include staying online for more than six hours a day instead of working or studying and “feeling tense and angry because you cannot get online.”

    Some Chinese children are sent to rehab for spending as few as 4 or 5 hours a week on line. But the Communist Youth League calls internet addiction “a grave social problem” affecting 14% of Chinese teens – that’s 10 million people – and the country’s largest internet addiction clinic, at Daxing, isolates its worst cases on a special floor. According to Daxing’s director, “the third-floor patients, their souls are gone to the online world.”

    It should come as no surprise that the World Wide Web is addictive world wide. As long ago as 1995, MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle warned of the dangers of what she called “life on the screen.” In 2006, Stanford psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude found in a telephone survey that one in eight Americans exhibits possible signs of internet addiction. There are “a small but growing number of internet users . . . starting to visit their doctors for help with unhealthy attachments to cyberspace,” but the most seriously addicted couldn’t take their fingers off their keyboards long enough to take the telephone internet addiction survey.

    Aboujaoude is most troubled by the numbers of people who hide their nonessential Internet use, lying to family members and therapists about the amount of time they spend online. “In a sense,” he says, “they’re using the internet to ‘self-medicate.’”

    Last year, Dr Jerald Block, writing in the American Journal of Psychiatry, outlined four main symptoms of American internet addiction:

    • Excessive use, often associated with a loss of sense of time or a neglect of basic drives;
    • Withdrawal, including feelings of anger, tension and/or depression when the computer is inaccessible;
    • The need for better computers, more software, or more hours of use;
    • Negative repercussions, including arguments, lying, poor achievement, social isolation and fatigue.

    Block thinks it’s time to upgrade internet addiction by including it in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, although he believes that the prognosis for the condition is not good: “Unfortunately internet addiction is resistant to treatment, entails significant risks and has high relapse rates.”

    Curable or not, internet addiction clinics have sprung up around the world – some of them brick and mortar facilities like the ones in China, but also therapeutic websites like Internet Addicts Anonymous where addicts can, well, use the internet to ‘self-medicate.’ This hair-of-the-dog treatment can also be found at www.netaddiction.com, where you can indulge your addiction while you're curing it, or you can learn to help others who are similarly afflicted: for $99, netaddiction will sell you a series of online tutorials whose completion earns you a Certificate in Internet Addiction Recovery.

    Screenshot of Zur Institute offering certificate in internet addiction treatment 

    $99 buys you an online course and a certificate as an internet addiction therapist so you can medicate yourself and your Facebook friends 

    Before we add internet addiction to the DSM-V and click to order an off-label cure for what’s not even an official disease, it might be useful to put internet addiction into perspective. Yes, it’s pathological to spend so much time online gambling, gaming, looking at porn or Facebooking that you forget to eat or sleep, you fail your classes and lose your job and family, not to mention your home and your wifi connection, and you start engaging in counter-revolutionary behavior. But millions of people aren’t doing that, even in China. Instead, they’re spending a few hours online in the evenings or on weekends, which isn’t all that different from a spending a few hours in front of the TV, or – dare I say it? – a few hours reading a book.

    So far as TV addiction goes, according to Nielsen Media, the average American now spends five hours a day watching television (only 57% of them actually read a book in any given year, suggesting that Americans are actually addicted to not reading). But don’t touch that dial: instead of building clinics and administering electroshock to cure the growing national TV obsession, perhaps a series of late-night infomercials is all you need to lighten your wallet while teaching you the secrets of successfully turning off the tube.

    But wait, there’s more – if you call before midnight, tonight, we’ll throw in a free online course in how to make money, win friends, and influence people by blogging, texting, and Facebooking, not to mention watching your favorite TV shows online. If you’re ready to unplug that TV set, and you’re not already hooked on the internet, call now. Operators are standing by.

    Computer screen showing World of Warcraft, with  

    Shipping and handling not included. Not sold in stores. Void where prohibited. Call now, before there are any more fatalities.

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