The stigmatization of Internet Addiction Disorder: searching for a definition

Boss, do you think I'm crazy if I go online six hours a day?

The Ministry of Health (卫生部) might release the official definition for Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) during the first half of next year, reported major media outlets such as The Beijing News and China Youth Daily on Friday August 28.

Lately, bloggers, CCTV programmers, newspaper columnists etc have all expressed a conspicuous disdain for IAD treatment centers and electro-shock therapy for "addicts." As a consequence electro-shock therapy was halted in mid-July.

On August 21 Raymond Zhou (周黎明) wrote about the subject in his China Daily column:

As a matter of fact, Internet overuse is, in nature, no different from other forms of addictions - say, alcoholism, gambling, shopping, day trading, watching television series, reading cheap romance novels, sex, among a thousand other things. The problem does not lie in the activities themselves, but the intemperate length of practice. Regulators cannot prevent people from getting drunk, but they can - and should - stop the inebriated from driving, as it will harm others. Likewise, the government cannot close all retailers because some shopaholics ruin their family finances. Even the most beneficial thing, if carried to extreme, will have negative consequences.

Maybe because conservatives are suspected of attempting to take away the precious liberties made possible by the Internet, liberals are racing to the other extreme. They tend to rationalize addiction by either lumping it with more acceptable behavior or substituting it with criticism of the "cure".

The liberals that Zhou speaks of are star bloggers such as Hecaitou and PKU media professor Hu Yong (胡泳), who on July 25 penned a blog post called "The disreputation of IAD" (网络成瘾的污名化).

The essay goes into length about the demonization of the Internet by those wanting to cash in on treating so-called "addicts." It also criticizes the statistics cited by sources who want IAD to be classified as an official mental illness.

Below is a translation of Hu Yong's post, which is also a response to the banning of electro-shock therapy. First though, a translation of The Beijing News report about the Ministry of Health trying to define IAD, and the confusion surrounding a draft in late August. It also announces a timid date for the release of an official definition.

IAD definition to be released during the first half of next year

by Wei Mingyan (魏铭言) / TBN

“Internet Addition Disorder means spending more than forty hours online per week” isn’t necessarily the Ministry of Health's diagnosis. Yesterday, Tian Chenghua (田成华) from the mental illness center of the Sixth Hospital affiliated to Peking University, responsible for related research for the Ministry of Health, said in response to the media reports this week and the heated online discussion about a definition for IAD.

Tian Chenghua said that the Ministry of Health had asked the mental illness research center to be responsible for research and to make a draft for a definition of Internet addiction and alcohol addiction, and that Central South University's (中南大学) mental illness research department is also one of the clinical studies centers. But, these research centers are only responsible for the collation of illness files and research, and is not a place that can decide on a definition for Internet addiction.

Because a definition for IAD is still at the stage of definition and research, Tian Chenghua said that the research groups won't be declaring their findings to the outside just yet.

Yet at the beginning of this week, some media have reported that the Ministry of Health asked the mental illness research center of the Sixth Hospital affiliated to Peking University and the mental illness department of the Central South University to look into a definition for IAD, as well as alcohol addiction, and their treatment. One of the five Hunan specialists, Gao Xueping (高雪屏), PhD, explained: "From the initial research stages, going online for more than forty hours a day can be defined as IAD."

In terms of this pronouncement, Tian Chenghua explained that going online forty hours a week constituted IAD, but this definition is not necessarily correct, and is also unrelated to their role in researching into the definition of IAD. "Those reports are using our name falsely."

Aside from this, Tian Chenghua explained, in terms of research into a definition of IAD, the quickest that a conclusive report will be out is the end of this year, in the meantime, the research group will offer the results of the research for confirmation with the Ministry of Health, and the Ministry of Health will publish it. The time of publication, at the quickest, will hopefully be during the first half of next year.

The Disreputation of Internet Addiction Disorder

by Hu Yong

CNNIC has just published the 24th Statistical Report on Internet Development in China, claiming that the main innovative points this time is to open up detailed research into online forms. The perspectives are Internet trustworthiness, Internet interaction and Internet reliance; the three parts describe the most important forms of Chinese netizens' online existence. CNNIC's research showed that presently 16.4% of netizens express that they don't feel well after a day of not being on the Internet, and 17.4% feel that compared to real life, they'd rather be online - on average one out of every six netizens have the tendency to be addicted to the Internet.

As if at the same time, the Ministry of Health called a halt to electro-shock therapy to treat Internet addiction, getting public attention to once again focus on the issue of Internet addiction, which has troubled society for some time. But is the Internet addiction of the CNNIC and that of the Ministry of Health the same? This is damaging for the many people who can’t get to the bottom of it, because different definitions for Internet addiction will cause different social consequences.

CNNIC claims that, “We chose relevant testing phrases in a survey of netizens and their tendency to be addicted to the Internet.” They did not elaborate on this "gauging," but what we can see is that they requested netizens to answer two questions: one, do you feel ill-at-ease if you don’t go online for one day? Two, compared to real society, do you prefer to stay on the Internet? Those who gave an affirmative answer will be designated as having an addiction tendency, although CNNIC also distinguishes that the former is an active use of the Internet, whilst the latter signifies a want to avoid real society.

The Ministry of Health’s notice announcing the banning of electro-therapy did not define Internet addiction. We know that on November 8, 2008, Beijing’s main military hospital led the definition for the diagnosis and treatment of Internet addiction with experts, and asked for permission from the Ministry of Health. At the time the media were claiming that China will become the first country in the world to have a standard for treatment for Internet addiction. However, it has been over half a year since then, and the standards submitted to the Ministry of Health still has not been authorized. This shows without doubt that the academic circle around mental illness cannot find an agreement for whether Internet addiction is a mental illness.

However, although the standard hasn’t yet been passed, this hasn’t prevented many people listing Internet addiction as a mental illness. Making friends online, finding information online and online gaming can all be addictive, and all these addicts can be "treated" like mental illness patients. Therefore, all 300 hospitals, bases, centers or schools have swarmed forwards to treat Internet addiction. Many places show the effects of the “treatment” and don’t stop at using psychogenic medicine on the “sufferers” (some of which are not legal adults).

When even an expert can’t be sure of how to gauge the definition of Internet addiction, when even internationally the verification of this is being carefully done, where is the basis for the treatment organizations for Internet addiction here? What do you base putting young people in treatment centers on? Based on what assessment standards are medicine and electro-shock therapy being given? It was because Yang Yongxin’s (杨永信) measures were extremely bad that it attracted bad public opinion, but is it possible that the 300 or more organizations are using the correct method to treat Internet addiction? Has the Ministry of Health thought about doing a deep investigation on these organizations?

In reference to some of the national Internet addiction treatment experts and their defenses, they seem to like using sensationalized cases and statistics, and they use unclear sources to support their strict attitude towards Internet addiction. For example, a statistic that is often quoted by certain experts to explain the serious nature of Internet addiction is that there are already 10 million youth China with Internet addiction, and even more frightening, 70% of crimes committed by young people are related to Internet addiction, “Internet addiction has become the primary cause for young people committing crime in China.” But, how did they get this result? We haven’t ever had an effective explanation, but only that it has been widely used in the media. So we ask, if the government does not have a strict definition for Internet addiction, how do prove the number for the youths who are addicted to the Internet as correct?

Giving a bad reputation to Internet addiction is usually accomplished through many comparisons: likening the Internet to psychological drugs, electronic heroin, a demon that is plaguing the bodies and minds of young people, and giving up being viewed as a battle. For example, Yang Yongxin says in his blog: “Games such as 'World of Warcraft,’ 'Legend' are the electronic opium that foreigners have brought to Chinese people. The Chinese government should act as they did when Lin Zexu (林则徐) burnt all the opium at Humen (虎门), and to instigate a new Opium War.” A certain PhD on CCTV was trying to promote Yang Yongxin and the “honorable” word and the long “documentary literature” in his book War with the Internet Demon (战网魔), which described the battle with Internet addiction as “the third Opium Wars” and claimed that Yang Yongxin was a warrior in this battle. His believers sing loudly: In the past Lin Xexu smashed the smoke at Humen, now Yang Yongxin bravely fight the Internet demon.” At Yang’s quitting center there is a slogan: “Swear to bloodily combat Internet demons to the end.” The “bloody combat" is violent.

From this perspective, the work of fighting Internet addiction is philanthropy work, and it's fighting for justice. However, in reality quitting the Internet is work driven by naked interests. Just as the journalist who secretly interviewed an Internet addiction quitting center found out, there is already a huge chain of interest around the quitting centers: “As for this chain of interests, Internet addiction is only a scarecrow that they have erected.”

A scarecrow cannot be erected for no apparent reason. Behind “Internet demon” and “bloody battle” and other sayings, which hides this kind of judgment: the Internet is a world full of danger; it is a den of sins, opening its huge mouth to swallow up young people who were healthy and forwards-thinking. The explanation that CNNIC has for Internet addiction is a lot more sophisticated, but their basic judgment of the Internet is the same.

Therefore, in terms of the Ministry of Health halting electro-shock therapy, we should be slow to rejoice. The electro-shock therapy is only one ring of many that should be broken, but it’s a lot harder to break the entire chain. In fact, although there is a substantial number of teenagers who rely on the Internet, we need to take an extremely cautious attitude before taking Internet addiction into the field of mental illness. At present we need to do more detailed work, in order for people to distinguish what exactly they are addicted to, etc.

In the end, if a teenager has been driven to reliance on the Internet, as parents, will you have the courage to admit that your education hasn’t been good enough? As a society, do you have to courage to admit that the macroscopic environment is seriously at fault, and need many areas for help, instead of treating the Internet as a readily-available scapegoat?

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Here's an Internet Addiction program in Seattle. They have a free self-evaluation on their site: link

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