An ex-military instructor (front) and students do push-ups during a military-style close-order drill class at the Qide Education Center in Beijing February 19, 2014. The Qide Education Center is a military-style boot camp which offers treatment for internet addiction.

They practise drills in locked dormitories and are closely supervised by former soldiers.

But these young people in army uniforms aren't soldiers. They're teenagers undergoing military-style boot camps designed to inject discipline to wean them off their Internet addiction.

There are as many as 250 such camps in China alone.

Their methods are more aggressive than clinics elsewhere - such as some in the US that offer website blocking and monitoring software, and enforce bans on Internet use for addicts among the 75 per cent of US adults who are online.

As growing numbers of young Chinese turn to the cyber world, spending hours playing games online to escape the competitive pressures, worried parents increasingly turn to the boot camps to crush addiction.

"My parents wanted me to study at home all day and I was not allowed to play outside," said one teenager, who gave only his surname, Wang.

In response, Wang retreated to the Internet, devoting long stretches of time to his favourite online shooting game. He once even played for three days straight, a period during which he slept for less than an hour, he told Reuters. 

"As I became addicted to the game, my school grades tumbled. But I gained another feeling of achievement by advancing to the next level in the game," he added.

Internet addicts like Wang lose confidence when they fall short of parents' aspiration that they attain perfection in every endeavour, leaving the children vulnerable to depression and anxiety, said Dr Tao Ran, a psychologist who founded an "education centre", as the boot camps are known.


That prompts the teenagers to withdraw from their family and friends and eventually leads to addiction to the Internet, said Dr Tao, who has specialised in studying such addicted teens.

Wang struggled through two years of increasingly serious problems at home and school before he was diagnosed with "Internet Addiction Disorder" and sent to the Qide Education Centre in Beijing.

Up to 70 per cent of the 110 teenagers being treated at the Beijing centre suffer from problems caused by the overuse of the Internet, mostly online games.

Teachers and military instructors who pick up the troubled teenagers, at the request of their parents, aim to use military instruction to inculcate discipline.

"Internet-addicted children are in very poor physical condition," said centre official Xing Liming. "Their obsession with the Internet has harmed their health and they end up losing their ability to participate in a normal life."

Students who formerly did nothing but move their fingers over a computer mouse and keyboard all day must now do cleaning and washing and take turns helping to cook meals.

Said Mr Xing: "Education and living in a military environment makes them more disciplined and restores their ability to live a normal life.

"The training improves their physical strength and helps to develop good living habits."

Besides the drill and physical exercises, the courses, which last for four to eight months, cover classes in music and Chinese lion dancing.

Counselling sessions with psychologists aim to help addicts rebuild self-confidence and their ties to family and friends.

"My dream job was to be a game designer, but I realised I could not achieve it because I am not good at maths and English," said 23-year-old He, who went through a six-month course that uncovered his passion for baking.

"I think learning baking will help me find a job," he said.

But the regimen may not succeed for all. One Beijing education centre is being sued by a distraught mother who says her daughter's addiction worsened after a course last year.

This article was first published on July 11, 2014.
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