Monday, June 1, 2015

Coming of Age with “Internet Addiction”: Institutional Encounters and Subject Formation of Chinese Youngsters

Since 2005, “internet addiction” has been treated as a mental disorder in China. Treatment camps for internet addiction are widely established across China to save Chinese youths and their families. Yet, the media depicts the “dark” side of these unauthorized institutions, and discloses the series of physical tortures suffered by the youngsters being sent to these centres.

Rao Yichen presenting his research at the Hong Kong Museum of History

Rao Yichen, an MPhil student of our Department, had delivered an anthropological talk* on the topic “Coming of Age with “Internet Addiction”: Institutional Encounters and Subject Formation of Chinese Youngsters” at the Hong Kong Museum of History last Thursday. He conducted three-month ethnographic fieldwork in a treatment camp to find out whether or not the news were doing justice to these institutions, what kinds of treatments, effective or not, the youngsters had received, and how these camps had informed us about Chinese society.

Living room of the youngsters in the treatment camp

The camp he conducted fieldwork at employed different therapeutics and set up various unitsdrillmaster team, psychological group, clinical unit, nursing unit, leisure activity group and parents groupto treat the youngsters. Uniformity and discipline were emphasized in the camp, in which the youngsters had to follow a daily schedule, wear military uniform and receive training. Pleasure control had been viewed as the key, since these youngsters were believed to have problem in impulse control. Yichen highlighted the use of Morita therapy (森田療法) in the camp, which was a Japanese therapy designed for patients with obsessive–compulsive disorder. The therapy commonly took a month. At first, the youngster would be isolated in a single room with no one to talk to, and left to his or her own mind. He or she would be given a pen in the second week to write anything, which could be reflections or creative writings. In this treatment, the soul could either be the prison, or the other way round, the savior of the body.

The youngsters and their parents attending psychological lectures together

Yichen noted that the youngsters had invented their local currency—the piece of bread distributed after dinner—in the treatment camp which enabled them to exchange and reciprocate. The “bread system” informed social actions and helped the youngsters to establish relationships, hence contributing to the formation of a community in the camp.

The whole treatment required six months for completion. Length of the treatment period was importantthe youngsters might attach to the institution if they stayed there too long, or could still be at the stage of conversion if the duration of the treatment was too short.

Yichen concluded that the term “internet addiction” was only meaningful in the context. Different societies had their own ways in controlling the “abnormalities”. What shall not be overlooked was the discourse that subjected youngsters to “internet addiction” in the first place.

*The talk was jointly presented by The Hong Kong Anthropological Society and the Hong Kong Museum of History. The list of upcoming talks can be found at The talks are free of charge and open to the public.


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