China is one of the most connected nations in the world, with over 600 million of its citizens accessing the web on their computers and mobile devices. The Chinese language sphere has its own version of Twitter which, with almost 300 million users, is bigger than the global reach of Twitter. In addition to social networking, some of which is tightly circumscribed by state censorship of the internet, millions of young Chinese are obsessed with online gaming. The craze has become so widespread and reached such excesses that worried parents across China, and psychologists whom they have been consulting, are speaking of a new addiction - Internet Addiction. Typical symptoms are lack of enthusiasm for any activities beyond the online sphere, irritability and an inability to engage in interpersonal relationships. For some, getting caught up in the online world can mean a dramatic and premature end to their academic careers, destructive behaviour at school and at home and family breakup. Tao Ran, director of the Internet Addiction Treatment Centre in Beijing, the first of its kind, has even devised a definition that is designed to help psychologists identify the condition. Six hours of internet usage per day for three straight months constitutes addiction. Though his definition has not been universally adopted, it gives an idea of the scale of the problem which is now being dealt with in centres around the country.
Tao's centre, a drab concrete compound south of Beijing, is organised along military lines of discipline and obedience. Patients are required to sign up to a minimum three months stint at the centre with no access to the outside world, be it through mobile phones or the internet. The young addicts are not abandoned to the draconian discipline by their parents. Tao, a former colonel in the People's Liberation Army, believes that the condition is at least partially caused by incorrect parenting and thus requires parents to follow their children into rehab. The whole therapy can cost over $ 1,400, around 3 months wages for the average Chinese family. Yet the martial routine imposed on the addicts seems to work. Starting at 6.30 in the morning, their daily programme includes military drills, therapy sessions, reading and exercise.
Despite the odd setback, including a number of deaths in some centres, the approach seems to be working with many of the 24 million internet addicts, an estimate from China Daily, a government approved newspaper. Panos photographer Fernando Moleres and writer Zigor Aldama embedded themselves with a number of patients at Tao Ran's Beijing facility and watched the process of their treatment. A full text is available upon request.