(Web Desk) – Xiong Chengzuo a Chinese teenager was taken by his parents to a boot-camp for teenagers who are obsessed with their smart phones. He was delivered by his parents to a man that was known as the “evil godfather”.
“They tricked me,” Xiong says of his internment on 18 December last year. “I shouted and I yelled: ‘I want to get out! I don’t want to stay here!’” It was no use: “My parents ignored me – they left the next morning.”
Xiong, a 16-year-old is one of the estimated 23 million Chinese internet addicts. And the “evil godfather” – is an affable former People’s Liberation Army soldier called Xu Xiangyang who is on the forefront of working hard to bring back young people addicted to the virtual in the real world.
“I’m totally against online games,” says Xu, the 57-year-old head of the Xu Xiangyang education and training centre in Huai’an, a city about 400km north of Shanghai. “They completely ruin a person’s health. They leave an individual with no means of earning money or supporting themselves. They are utterly meaningless and bring nothing positive to a family or a person.”
Xu Xiangyang, who runs a boot camp, says video games are ‘utterly meaningless’. Photo: The Guardian
Xu opened his school almost two decades ago in 1997, when internet addicts were few and far between. China in that time was fully connected to the internet with just 300,000 computers and 620,000 people surfing the web, according to official figures of Ministry of Commerce, China.
The number has ascended since then and almost 710 million users are now browsing and using the internet in China, making it the largest online community. With this rapid usage of the internet number of addicts has exploded too.
“It’s such a big issue,” says Xu’s business partner and wife, Li Yan, 59, who believes the solitude endured by millions of digital natives is the key culprit.
“They feel emptiness in their hearts. They can’t live up to their parents’ expectations. So they go to the internet cafe.”
Young people in China often seen in internet cafe where they spend their entire days and nights glued to games such as League of Legends or Counter-Strike.This led to many cases where it caused serious harms and even death. A 17-year-old from Guangzhou suffered a stroke after playing a game called ‘King of Glory’ for 40 hours non-stop.
In a 2014 documentary about China’s so-called web junkies, the head of one of Beijing boot camp stated that some addicts wore nappies to avoid having any breaks while infront of their screens: “That’s why we call it electronic heroin.”
China became the first country in 2008, when the country declared internet addiction as a clinical disorder. The country is trying to solve this 21-century problem with techniques that are considered controversial.
The numbers of boot camps has increased since there is a demand of curing this addiction, a school not far from Xu’s gained notoriety for using electroconvulsive therapy to treat internet addicts, despite government’s ban.
“It was unbearable,” one 22-year-old patient told the Chinese news website Sixth Tone of his ordeal. “I had to close my eyes tightly and all I saw was snow, like looking at a television without a signal.”
Xu on the other hand completely rejects such methods and considers them irrational and inhumane. His center, which costs around $ 5,000 works on luring young people back into the real world with culture and not electric shocks, apart from that his school focuses on ballet, music, and stand-up comedy.
Devoted to his People’s Liberation Army roots, Xu believes marching is one of the best remedies, at least three times in a year pupils set off on a 300km trek through the countryside. The students stay in a barracks style compound in a village of Bafang for a month before returning to base.
“It is about discipline,” Xu says.
With soaring high temperatures and completely three days of the school’s latest march, Xiong who’s now part of the boot camp admits that he is feeling the burn.
“I couldn’t bear it at first … Every day I’d have to walk 40km.
“[My feet are] covered in blisters,” he complains, pointing to a pair of fluorescent pink trainers.
But the teenager says the journey forced him offline and allowed him to reflect on his online ways. “They had no choice but to send me here,” he says of his parent’s decision.
The camp also includes girls, Bing Jiaying an 18-year-old self-declared smart phone addict said that she was also tricked into coming to this school by her parents.
“I hate you,” she remembers telling her mother in May, as she was forcibly checked in.
Bing admits her addiction towards her iPhone 6 Plus on which she spent days and nights chatting and was partly responsible for destroying her relationship with her parents. The young girl has so far spent two months but dreads her rest of the stay. “I’ll be here for a whole year,” she grumbles.
Bing Jiaying, centre, with fellow students, fears she will be at the boot camp for a whole year. Photo: The Guardian
During a visit to the Bafang compound, dozens of cheerful students can be seen splashing about in an outdoor swimming pool and bellowing classic
Chinese poetry during an ear-splitting enunciation class. Zhang Yifan, the art teacher giving that lesson, says the school’s job is to nurture those in its care, not punish them: “Some parents use only severe methods, like beating or scolding, towards their children. They have no idea how to guide their kids into a beautiful world.”
Xiong confesses he was a “severe addict” when he arrived at Xu’s retreat, but is now even beginning to enjoy his new home. “It’s a good place,” he says.
This story originally appeared in The Guardian.