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Last Updated: Monday, 10 October 2005, 14:06 GMT 15:06 UK
Treating China's online addicts
By Daniel Griffiths
BBC News, Beijing

The internet is taking China by storm, with millions of people logging on in record numbers and web cafes busier than ever.

: Chinese youngsters sleep at an internet cafe on June 11, 2005 in Wuhan, Hubei Province of China.
Internet addiction is reaching epidemic proportions in China

Rising personal wealth means more people are able to buy computers or pay to go online. The vast majority are young people using the net to chat or play games.

But behind the boom, there is a downside.

Wang Yiming, 21, is a self-confessed internet addict, one of a growing number in China. He used to spend hours online each day, often going without food or sleep. His face is drawn and sallow.

He said addiction changed his whole life:

"A month or two after I started surfing the internet, I failed some of my school tests, but I was too afraid to tell my parents. When my father found out, he was very angry.

"But I couldn't control my addiction. Friends were also telling me that I was on the net too long, but I thought: 'It's my life, I can do what I want.' I became a real loner, was withdrawn, and wouldn't listen to anyone."

 A young Chinese internet addict receives an electroencephalogram check at the Beijing Military Region Central Hospital July 6, 2005 in Beijing, China.
The clinic provides medical treatment and therapy

For help, Wang Yiming went to China's first internet clinic, a low-rise, anonymous building in central Beijing.

All 15 patients when I visited were young men - the main social group affected by this problem - and they all told a similar story of how their addiction to the net destroyed their lives.

The clinic itself is part of a bigger addiction centre also treating those hooked on alcohol or drugs. The internet addicts go on a two-week course involving medical treatment, psychological therapy, and daily workouts.

The latter are a key part of the programme. Many of the men have spent every waking moment in front of a computer screen and have never experienced regular exercise.

Dr Tao Ran, head of the clinic, said the scale of the problem in China was enormous:

"Every day in China, more than 20 million youngsters go online to play games and hit the chat rooms, and that means that internet addiction among young people is becoming a major issue here.

"And it's only recently that the authorities have started to wake up to the seriousness of the problem with more articles in the papers highlighting the dangers of going online for too long," he said.

Rising demand

The clinic is getting an extra 200 beds next year to meet demand and new centres are due to open in other major cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou.

But the programme only lasts two weeks, followed by minimal after-care. Many have their doubts about the long term, like one patient's mother.

"The work of the doctors here at the centre has been very important, but of course I'm still worried," she said.

"I admire the doctors for what they have done so far and all we can do is follow their advice and knowledge to help our son," she said.

All the men know this centre is just the beginning. Now they must return to the outside world and the real test for these computer addicts.

And with millions of Chinese logging on every day, it is likely that the country's first internet clinic is going to have its hands full.

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