China: Inside an Internet gaming disorder rehab center

by @mhayoun December 10, 2014 5:00AM ET

Fernando Moleres documents a center treating gaming-addicted youth with military discipline and psychotherapy

An Internet cafe in Beijing. According to the country’s Ministry of Information Industry, there are about 113,000 Internet cafes and bars in China. The nation has barred underage youth from such cafes and imposes heavy fines on operators who do not enforce the ban.
Fernando Moleres

Award-winning photographer Fernando Moleres has documented some of the world’s most egregious human rights violations, from child labor in Guatemala to the incarceration of minors at overcrowded, disease-ridden prisons in Sierra Leone. More recently, Moleres traveled to China, where he focused his lens on patients at a rehabilitation facility to treat Internet gaming disorder — revealing not so much a human rights issue as what some say is an emerging side effect of China’s rapid-fire economic growth.

But for Moleres, 51, his latest focus isn’t much of a departure from his earlier essays. After his work in Sierra Leone in 2012, he started Free Minor Africa, a non-governmental organization aiming to educate minors imprisoned in the West African nation.

“Education is a powerful rehabilitation tool. I believe in rehabilitation as a way to be reborn,” Moleres said. That’s precisely what interested him in documenting the Chinese Internet gaming disorder rehabilitation camp.

Not much is known about Internet gaming disorder in the United States. The 2013 American Psychiatric Association (APA) describes it as a “new phenomenon” in which compulsive online gaming leads to “clinically significant impairment or distress.” Still, the APA has yet to conduct enough significant research on the condition to classify it as a formal disorder. The APA did not respond to interview requests from Al Jazeera at time of publication."

A player rests at an Internet cafe in Beijing. Some gamers play until they fall asleep.
Fernando Moleres

According to the APA's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the problem is already being addressed in East Asian countries.

There are about 113,000 Internet cafes and bars in China, according to official figures. Lower-end establishments are typically a sole means of accessing the Web for China’s migrant labor population and the poor — or at 24-hour locations, a place to stay the night — but higher-end cafes replete with gaming facilities and plush chairs cater to gaming enthusiasts in the nation’s big cities.

According to Moleres’ reportage citing Chinese government statistics, there are 632 million Internet users in China, and authorities say 10 percent of minors who surf the Internet are addicted to it.

The rehabilitation facility in southern Beijing that Moleres photographed treated 62 boys and six girls, primarily in their mid to late-teens. Tao Ren, the military doctor who runs the facility, estimates there are 24 million Internet addicts in China.

At the center — which, as Moleres’ photos depict, some patients have attempted to escape — teens suffering from Internet gaming disorder are monitored for gaming’s effects on their neurological activity, and through labor and military drills are thought to improve brain activity and break the habit.

Tao told Moleres that a number of factors contribute to the disorder. Many of the sufferers don’t spend much time with their parents. As China’s economy expands and competition becomes steeper, “parents work a lot and spend few hours at home,” Tao said. Because of the country’s family-planning restrictions, most children have no siblings, and many are left alone at home to play on their computers.

This cultural context makes the gamer feel as though they have found “a community with shared beliefs and practices” at Internet cafes and in interactions online with other gamers, Moleres said.

Stiff competition to succeed or simply to find a livelihood in Chinese society also means there is a great deal of pressure on students to succeed at school.

“Some say it’s unbearable. They feel overwhelmed,” Moleres said. And parents often expect that their child will support them in their old age. That is one reason, according to Moleres, that Chinese parents often push their children — sometimes too hard — to excel.

While Moleres says this speaks to issues in Chinese society, he hoped to address a global phenomenon, as the lives of the world’s youth are evermore technology-dependent.

“Now it’s a phenomenon that plagues the young in some Asian countries, but which may also soon affect … our youth,” he said.

13-year-old Lu Jun Song arrived at the center completely disoriented. His brain's bio-electrical activity was monitored for signs of cerebral dysfunction.
Fernando Moleres
Leo, center, started playing online video games in 2005, playing an average of 16 hours on days that he is not at school.
Fernando Moleres
The Internet Addiction Treatment Center (IATC) is led by Tao Ran, a military doctor and researcher who built his career treating heroin addicts. The center includes a tough-love approach with military discipline, drugs and psychotherapy.
Fernando Moleres
Patients take part in military-style drills each morning that put an emphasis on authority.
Fernando Moleres
An instructor gives an order to a patient in the center’s yard. The majority of the center’s 70 patients are male.
Fernando Moleres
Yin Yu Tao and He Song sleep while patients play cards. People suffering from Internet gaming disorder often face problems socializing with others.
Fernando Moleres
Each day, the center offers patients two hours of group talk therapy led by a psychologist.
Fernando Moleres
Patients in the daily group psychotherapy sessions. Some 600 million Chinese use the internet regularly; the government estimates that 13 percent of youth are at risk of developing Internet-related disorders.
Fernando Moleres
13-year-old Lu Jung Song is checked with to measure his cerebral bioelectrical activity.
Fernando Moleres
Patients sort books about Internet disorders written by Tao Ran, the center's director.
Fernando Moleres
15-year-old Zhai Ye started rehabilitation at IATC eight months ago. His dream is to study illustration in Japan.
Fernando Moleres
Huang Qi Jun, right, started playing Internet games as a 10-year-old. He was hooked immediately and began playing up to 20 hours straight at a time.
Fernando Moleres
Some patients take medication, paid for by their families, to counteract irritability, anxiety and sadness.
Fernando Moleres
New patients at the center sometimes spend long periods isolated in their rooms. Some show a lack of interest in daily life, refusing to interact with others.
Fernando Moleres

Fernando Moleres is a Spanish photographer based in Barcelona. In 2012, he was award the Tim Hetherington Grant for his work documenting the juvenile justice system in Sierra Leone.

See more of Moleres’ work in the latest issue of Al Jazeera English Magazine, available as a free download for phone and tablet in the iTunes store.