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Caught in the Web

[ 2009-08-24 11:41]     字号 [] [] []  
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CCaught in the Webhina Central Television aired an investigative show last week about a problematic cure for Internet addiction. It focused on a doctor who uses electro-convulsive therapy to treat mostly teenagers sent in by their parents and guardians to achieve "behavioral correction", as the treatment is labeled at a Linyi, Shandong province, hospital.

It was an excellent report that asked tough questions and touched on many technical issues. Yang Yongxin, the doctor in charge, admits his treatment has not been "verified" or "approved" by authorities, and the electroshock equipment he uses "has not been issued a government permit since 2000".

Like many people I believe electroshock therapy does not heal on a permanent basis, but produces only fear and obedience. But then, I'm no expert. According to the American Psychiatric Association and the British National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, the treatment does not cause brain damage in adults. Still, applying it to teenagers - without their consent - seems cruel.

Strangely, what has followed is not a focus on the therapy, but on the syndrome. Internet addiction is being disputed. "Is Internet addiction an addiction after all?" is the title of an essay by Leung Man-tao, an influential Hong Kong-based commentator.

"This provides a medical excuse to suppress the Internet world, just as people in ancient times set fire to lepers and killed them," writes Hecaitou, a well-known blogger.

Both are potent voices in the so-called "liberal" camp. Leung, who I respect, basically equates extended Internet use with addiction. He says that in the early days of the Internet he cautioned himself not to lose touch with the real world, but later realized the Internet "is the world". He goes on to list many uses of the Internet, such as online shopping.

Either Leung has never been inside an Internet caf or he has mixed two deceptively similar activities. Let's suppose a 16 year old, whom we'll call John for the sake of convenience, spends 10 hours a day in cyberspace. That is excessive to most people, who have eight-hour workdays.

Scenario one: John spends two hours researching his essay assignment, culling online newspapers and magazines for relevant content, three hours writing the essay, during which time he constantly consults online dictionaries, thesauri and encyclopedias. Then he spends two hours watching a movie on a video site, one hour sending and receiving messages and about two hours playing an online game, with a few extra minutes shopping for a gift for his mother's birthday.

Scenario two: John spends eight hours playing an online game and two hours on an instant messaging system.

From Leung's article, it is clear he is defending scenario one, while many deem scenario two as problematic. If you simply take a photo of two adolescents typing away at a computer, you cannot tell the difference. But if you spend a whole day during the summer vacation with him, you will have a gut feeling whether his habit is healthy or not.

When we say "Internet overuse", it's not just the amount of time spent online, but whether it is obsessive. Scenario one is relatively normal because John has a schedule that accommodates several activities, many of which are educational. Scenario two, if it continues over months and years, is detrimental, at least in my mind, because it excludes variety and choices of activities, provides only escape and diversion and is not job related or productive.

Now, I totally understand that many games are both fun and educational. Even those purely for "amusement" can train eye-hand coordination, dexterity of response, strategizing, and so on. But then I'll be getting into a whole new area beyond the scope and length of this article.

There are many reasons why Internet addiction exists. But to deny its existence is to see no evil and hear no evil. Maressa Orzack of the Computer Addiction Study Center at Harvard University's McLean Hospital determined in 2005 that between 5-10 percent of American Web surfers "suffered some form of Web dependency". Here, a 2005 survey concluded that, among young Internet users, 13.2 percent fell into the category. Most media reports put the number of addicts at 20 million.

If you revise the methodology and the definition of addiction, the numbers will change. But concerned family members do not need such finagling to know how much is too much. They suffer the agony of losing a son to a virtual youth snatcher.

So, is it a good remedy to shut down websites that offer these enticements? Conservatives seem to believe so. They tend to pinpoint the Web as the source of this kind of evil.

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.

Caught in the Web

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".

Blogger Hecaitou's argument, as translated by Roland Soong in his EastSouthWestNorth blog, compares Internet addiction to the reading of banned books during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), or the availability and temptation of sexual material some 20-30 years ago. Thus, addressing the craving is "a way of demonizing the Internet".

He accuses "the adult world and mainstream society" of being "ill-prepared and fearful of the rapidly emergent Internet world" and "projecting these emotions onto innocent children whom they punish severely in order to relieve their own anxiety".

I wonder if he would stick to his point if he had a teenage son who is camping out in a cybercafe?

I sympathize with the parents, perhaps, because I'm one myself - albeit not with a teenage son. But I've witnessed a father who is at his wit's end. His 18-year-old quit school and turned to constant online gaming, sleeping just a few hours a day. The kid has essentially become a zombie. The father is a knowledgeable person and suspects all the questionable therapies out there. He is caught between money-grabbing game operators and equally profit-oriented therapists.

Hecaitou imputes Shandong therapist Yang Yongxin's "huge market" to the "stupidity" of parents who seek help from him. For me, it was not stupidity, but desperation. And it is cruel to call these helpless parents stupid.

The liberals' defense of the Internet smacks of elitism, and subconsciously, even extreme Darwinism. They seem to imply: Let these teenagers become onlineaholics. It's better than joining a gang. And in a couple of years they may wake up to the real world and turn sensible again. Actually, this reasoning is a positive spin of their "if I don't see it, it doesn't exist" attitude.

However, in this anything-for-a-job environment, three years will likely reduce an individual's competitiveness to the point he may never find a decent job. But that doesn't concern the liberals.

If the trend continues, I can see a whole demographic of 20 million who will end up living on their parents' pensions, playing online games, or watching soap operas all day. Granted, they leave opportunities to others. They do not disturb our society. They become loners and live quietly. The only caveat is: They break their parents' hearts.

Like most forms of addiction, Internet overuse is a private affair. It is not appropriate for a neighbor to interfere. And if the victim is 18 or older, even his parents do not have the right to force him to do what they want, or forgo what he is obsessed with. It comes down to whether a person has a right to a habit that harms nobody but himself. Yes, he does. He can weed himself out if he insists.

By pretending the problem does not exist we will ignore the self-exclusion of a significant demographic from being constructive members of society. That fits the agenda of one of the lofty-minded interest groups.