The Hidden Danger of Internet Addiction Mania: Sketchy Treatment Centers

China is leading the way in treatment bootcamps, but also abuse.

If your loved one is plagued by turtleneck syndrome, characterized by a hunched forward posture causing numbness in the fingers or wrists, they may be suffering from an addiction to their smartphone, tablet, or other wifi-connected device. Poised to be the illness of the future, it’s likely Internet addiction will also be the next moneymaker for America’s multi-billion-dollar troubled teen industry. As the media jumps on study after study sensationalizing the amount of time tweens and teens spend online, we should be looking at regulating the programs marketed toward fixing the youngest pathologically screen-obsessed generation.

The United Stated has lagged behind Asia in diagnosing and treating Internet addiction. China’s Tao Ran opened the first treatment program in a Beijing military hospital in 2004 and South Korea soon followed suit with similar internet bootcamps, while internet addiction was only added as an appendix to the DSM in 2013. Better late than never, residential facilities across America are beginning to see a market in underage net addicts.

America’s first Internet addiction treatment program, reSTART, which opened in 2009 in Seattle not far from Microsoft's headquarters, now has a youth program. And other behavioral modification programs usually targeted at rebellious and/or drug and alcohol-addled teens are adding Internet addiction to the laundry list of problems they solve. One of these programs, Liahona Academy, shared this infographic with Motherboard in an unsolicited email. The US, however, should look at the proliferation of internet bootcamps in China as a cautionary tale.

Over the past decade, hundreds of residential facilities for net-addicted teens have cropped up from Hebei to Guangxi. These facilities vary wildly. Ran, an expert in net addiction who holds a masters degree in medicine, runs a legitimate treatment program—the help he provides families is apparent in the independent documentary Web Junkies. But other facilities in the country are often run by quacks and snake oil salesman happy to pocket the yuan desperate parents are willing to fork over.

Treatments at these facilities include unlicensed electrotherapy, and abuse that has ended in at least two deaths. 15 year old Deng Senshan died from a beating he suffered his first day at the Qihang Salvation Training Camp in Nanning City in 2009. The tragedy resulted in the China’s Ministry of Health drafting guidelines for bootcamps which ban physical punishment, destructive surgeries, and forced lockups. Ran, the net bootcamp’s pioneer, has been an advocate for increased regulation in the industry, and told Wired these oversights are at least a “first step.” A year later, another teen Chen Shi was reportedly beaten to death at another camp in the Hunan province.

Western media is quicker to pounce on human rights abuses abroad than at home. Shenshan’s and Shi’s deaths were more widely reported than instances of alleged abuse at residential treatment centers in the US. While treating Internet addiction in the US is very recent, bootcamp style facilities targeting troubled teens have been a growing industry for decades—there are even escort services that will kidnap your teen to get them there—and allegations of abuse have been numerous.

In 2005, 33 states reported more than 1,600 staff members were involved in incidents of abuse in these residential programs, and a 2007 report from the US Government Accountability Office examined 10 closed civil or criminal cases from 1990 to 2004 where a teenager died. These programs are big money. Back in 2002, Forbes estimated the troubled teen was a $2 billion a year industry. While as in China, these therapeutic boarding schools, wilderness camps, and behavior modification centers (some promising to de-gay teens) can vary wildly, the problem is that right now they are totally unregulated at the federal level.

An effort to draft a bill enforcing standards for these programs was introduced to Congress last spring but did not progress past the committee stage. A new documentary Kidnapped for Christ about an American residential program in the Dominican Republic, executive produced by Lance Bass, is striving to galvanize greater support for regulations.

The US isn’t the only country just beginning to tackle internet addiction. In January, the first Internet addiction program in Sweden launched. And while the teen addicts in the Chinese camp featured in Web Junkies are all boys addicted World of Warcraft and other MMORPGs, Patrik Wincent at the Stockholm center reported that most of their prospective patients were girls addicted to social media.

If the US wants to tackle Internet addiction head-on and avoid the inconsistent and potentially harmful programs that will likely crop up in a vacuum of services, South Korea provides the best model. Bootcamp-style programs are government run and counseling is funded by taxpayers. The Ministry of Public Administration and Security is making the dangers of Internet addiction a mandatory part of the curriculum from preschool to high school. This seems like a preventative measure that could limit how many youth might otherwise eventually need to attend an extreme residential program that separates parents and children and introduces the risk for potential institutional abuse.