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Electrotherapy for Young Net Addicts

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Electroshock therapy is being administered to youngsters at a controversial Internet addiction clinic where patients are "reborn".

More than 3,000 youths have been tricked or forced in to a four-month program run by Dr Yang Yongxin at a clinic in Shandong Province. About 100 people are currently receiving treatment at the clinic.

Patients are given electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for breaking any of the center's 86 rules, including eating chocolate, locking the bathroom door, taking pills before a meal and sitting on Yang's chair without permission, the Information Times reported.

Parents or guardians sign a contract acknowledging that the child will be given ECT and pay 6,000 yuan (US$878) per month for treatment.

Details about the treatment were revealed online recently when a number of former patients began to write about their experience.

According to the posts, the clinic administers continuous ECT in a current of up to 200 milliamperes.

Meanwhile, patients are forced to admit "wrongdoings" and those of others and are also instructed to kneel down in front of their parents to show obedience.

In addition, patients -- known as "members of the alliance" at the clinic -- are not permitted to talk about anything other than overcoming their Internet addiction, numerous former patients write.

Most are found to be "cured" -- or "reborn" according to Yang -- by simply "admitting" that they have overcome their addiction.

Internet addiction is not classified as a mental illness in China, a country with nearly 300 million Internet users, many of whom are adolescents who willingly indulge in endless hours of online games per day.

Depression, fainting, muscle weakness and twitching and anorexia have been listed as typical syndromes of Internet addiction.

The government established the first Internet addiction treatment clinic in Beijing in 2004.

Today, all online game operators are required to install a "fatigue system" for players under 18 years, which is designed to restrict their play time to three hours a day. But analysts say there are too many ways to work around the rules.

Until recently, media reported on Yang's alleged "success". Liu Mingyin, a China Central Television reporter, called Yang "a fighter in the Third Opium War", framing the doctor's combat against Internet obsession as part of an ongoing war against "spiritual opium".

For his part, Yang views his acts as part of "a holy crusade" and says the electric current he applies to his "patients" is mild and "not dangerous".

What the youths receive at the clinic isn't really ECT, but a "refreshment therapy" that cautiously helps Net-addicted children calm down, says a story written in Yang's name and published online.

The chief publicity officer at Yang's hospital in Shandong's Linyi city, a mid-aged woman also surnamed Yang, said "the parents (who sent their kids to the clinic) can't be fools".

A mother surnamed Xu, whose 18-year-old son received ECT at the clinic, said she has been angered by negative reports about the clinic. "Compared with being on mind altering drugs for three months, electroshock is a safe and effective way to make my son calm and obedient," she said.

Tao Ran, director of the China's first Internet addiction clinic, said that ECT is "the last resort" in treating people with severe depression who are suicidal.

"It'll make patients more submissive, no doubt. But at the same time, ECT will cause memory loss," Tao says, adding that Yang's clinic is "the only Internet addiction clinic in the world that applies ECT to patients".

Tao's own center has treated more than 4,000 Internet-addicted youths. Patients have "comprehensive therapy" that includes medication and psychological counseling.

About 30 percent of Internet addicted youngsters are hyperactive and uncontrollable in a family environment, Tao said.

They need treatment at a professional institution that does not administer ECT, he said.

Zhuo Xiaoqin, a public health expert with the China University of Political Science and Law, said it was wrong to link Internet obsession with mental illness.

"A consistent standard must be in place to determine what Internet addiction really is," he said.

(China Daily June 3, 2009)