BEIJING - Baby-faced teenagers in army uniforms practice drills in locked dormitories in China, closely supervised by former soldiers, in a bid to inject discipline into lives disrupted by the Internet.
Welcome to the world of military-style boot camps designed to wean young people off their addiction to the Internet. There are as many as 250 camps in China alone.
Their methods are more aggressive than clinics elsewhere, such as some in the United States 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 generated in a society of 1.3 billion people, 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, he retreated to the Internet, devoting long stretches of time to his favourite online shooting game, in one instance even playing for three days straight, a period during which he slept for less than an hour, Wang said.
"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," Wang 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 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 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 the Chinese capital, 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 habits of discipline.
"Internet-addicted children are in very poor physical condition," said Xing Liming, an official of the centre. "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.
"Education and living in a military environment makes them more disciplined and restores their ability to live a normal life," said Xing. "The training improves their physical strength and helps to develop good living habits."
Besides the drill and physical exercises, the courses, which run between four and eight months, cover classes in music and Chinese lion dancing.
Counselling sessions with psychologists aim to help victims 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 math and English,"said He, 23, 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.
Yet 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.