South China Morning Post
Screams from ‘Room 13’: Are China’s kids being electroshocked for internet ‘addiction’?
Distressed boy heard screaming for his mother from mental hospital notorious for controversial treatment
Clinic was closed down in 2016 but online video ignites fears it has started up again
October 25, 2018

Psychiatrist Yang Yongxin

Psychiatrist Yang Yongxin

A psychiatric hospital in eastern China is being investigated for restarting a controversial internet addiction treatment after a video in which a boy can be heard screaming for his mother went viral on Weibo.

Weibo user “IADSER” claimed to have shot the video from outside the hospital after hearing screams coming from within. He posted the video on October 22 with the comment that the screams appeared to be coming from the notorious “Room 13” at the Linyi Mental Hospital in Shandong province.

The video has since been deleted.

“Room 13” became synonymous with internet addiction therapy after Yang Yongxin, a controversial clinical psychiatrist and former deputy chief of the hospital, was accused by former inmates of using electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), or electrical shock treatment, for “patients” in its internet addiction treatment centre between 2009 and 2016.

According to his Weibo account, IADSER was a patient at the internet addiction treatment centre for one month between December 2015 and January 2016.

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The Health and Family Planning Commission of Linyi City and the local Cyberspace Affairs Commission are both investigating the case, according to Shanghai-based news portal Thepaper.cn.

The internet addiction centre was closed down in August 2016, the local health authority told The Beijing News.

“The building in the video is the hospital’s first hospital wing, which is divided into four mental health recuperation zones and one internal medicine wing,” the hospital said.

“The ‘Linyi internet Addiction Treatment Centre’ was a subsidiary of the Linyi Mental Health Centre, and that name has not been in use since August 2016.

“All of the patients we treat can be classified under the International Classification of Diseases. The Room 13 being discussed online does not exist,” the hospital said in a statement on Weibo.

Authorities are investigating whether controversial electroshock therapy is once again being used to treat internet addiction at this psychiatric hospital in China. Photo: Thepaper.cn
Dr Isaac Yip, spokesman for the Hong Kong College of Psychiatrists said electroshock therapy was used in cases of severe depression and mania and, when applied properly, had about the same level of risk as a simple operation under general anaesthesia.

“However, if used on a healthy person, ECT can cause confusion from anywhere between a few minutes to a few hours and memory loss,” he said.

“ECT is very rarely used on children. They may be more prone to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mood disorders and anxiety disorders in the future,” Yip said, warning they could also lose confidence in adults and the medical system.

Yip suggested it may be more helpful to identify the underlying cause of their addiction and solve those problems, citing cases of video game addiction that he had seen in the past.

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China became the first country to list “internet addiction” as a clinical disorder in 2008. The National People’s Congress estimated that 10 per cent of Chinese children were “addicted” to the internet, most of them male.

Internet de-addiction “boot camps” and treatment centres began to flourish over the past decade as a solution for parents with “difficult” teens. Most are unregulated, illegal and run in a military-style where corporal punishment is often used.

Many children and teens have reported ill-treatment and even died after being sent to these camps. Last year, an 18-year-old boy died just two days into his “treatment” at one such facility in the eastern province of Anhui. Another 16-year-old girl killed her mother as revenge after being sent to internet rehab in 2016, Thepaper.cn reported.

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While many of these treatment centres claim to use a combination of physical training and medication to wean their patients off the internet, the Linyi facility became infamous after Yang’s ECT method to cure internet addiction was featured in a CCTV documentary in 2009.

“Even the most addicted and rebellious teens would emerge from this treatment room completely cured and apologise to their parents,” the documentary began.

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The method drew widespread criticism and the Chinese government subsequently banned the practice, yet Yang continued to use it until at least 2016, claiming the treatment was not the same as ECT, The Beijing News reported.

Mainland China is the only country to have listed internet addiction as a disorder. Australia, Japan, India, Italy, Korea and Taiwan have flagged it as a serious problem but have not gone as far as classifying it as a disorder.

But the World Health Organisation added gaming addiction as a disorder in its latest revision of the International Classification of Diseases, released in June this year.