Since Internet addiction disorder (IAD) was first introduced by Dr. Goldberg as a new type of addiction in 1995, Internet addiction has been widely covered. Research has been published; diagnostic standards as well as solutions have been proposed.
Currently in China there are 140 million Internet users. The press thoroughly discusses this issue, in particular adolescent Internet addiction. But most news articles depict the negative and pathological usage.
China Youth Daily published two articles, one written by Chen Weiwei from the Zhejiang Education Institute and the other by a Beijing resident Xiao Yunian, on August 19. They project a different point of view. They both claim that these reports are escalating prejudice against Internet use, which is in turn driving anxious parents to cut their kids off from the Internet. These biased reports are depicting juveniles as Internet victims, even stigmatizing them as addicts. They also analyzes the formation of this stigma.
How "Juvenile Internet Addiction" creates hysteria
China has the world's largest population of Internet users; 15 percent are under 18. And of 18.3 million teen users, more than 2 million are addicts, according to a November 2006 report published by the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League of China.
Many similar surveys and research all repeat the same thing: teenagers are getting addicted to the Internet. The premise that "the Internet is bad for young people" is now widely believed by many parents.
Adults assess teenage behavior by often using two visual angles: approval or disapproval. "Disapproval" behaviors focus on the negative side. When a parent believes that the Internet is filled with pornography, for example, then they will probably view surfing on the Internet as bad behavior.
The adult world is accustomed to judge juveniles by two simple terms, "good" or "bad." Every bad behavior has an opposite, a good behavior. Conversely, many teenagers who fail to be labeled as "good" kids are considered "bad."
Meanwhile, adults and experts have monopolized the description of juvenile Internet usage. They form a consistent pattern of assessment, but the adolescent participation in their assessment falls short. The monopolized description lacks introspection and turns a deaf ear to the teenage voices.
Sociological analysis of adolescent Internet addiction
Internet addiction is a social phenomenon and closely connected to the society itself.
As the economy booms, more people, young and old, are getting online and regard the Internet as an excellent tool for gathering information and for interpersonal communication.
Two surveys, one carried out in the United States in 1997 and another in Canada in 2001, both revealed that juveniles spent less time online than adults. A new survey conducted in China by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) this year also showed that Chinese people aged 20 to 35 account for the largest group among all Internet users, up to 66.3 percent, while juveniles less than 18 years old account for only 17.2 percent. The questions are: Why are people paying more attention to juvenile Internet addiction but ignoring the same problem among adult users? What kind of ideology is behind the flat-out denouncement of Internet gaming?
"In our society, youth is present only when its presence is a problem, or is regarded as a problem," Dick Hebdige stated in 1988. News coverage of popular papers, together with scholarly reports, gives the public the impression that "juveniles are becoming a problem." This prim notion evades rational thought and prevents us from looking carefully at our next generation. Moreover, teenagers suffer from low self-esteem as a consequence.
Usually, juveniles spend heterogeneous lives fused together in cliques during the academic year. Anything idiosyncratic easily catches the public eye. Especially today Chinese people are inclined to blame social woes, such as drug addiction and pre-marital sex on peculiar juvenile behavior. Chinese adults dominate the community. Adult experts and reporters monopolize public opinion with their explanations regarding juvenile norms while juvenile voices are mostly snuffed out.
The public feels relief when the media transforms public restraint on social immorality into the problems of juveniles.
Many juveniles become addicted to the Internet to escape from the pressures of real life. Yet when adults criticize this addiction, experts often ignore the reason why they too become addicted.
Compared to reality, cyberspace provides a comfortable virtual world. It's psychologically satisfying juveniles because it provides anonymity, rich information and novelty.
In cyberspace teenagers can interact with their peers yet enjoy great privacy. They can play violent games but no one gets hurt. Internet chat rooms allow them talk freely and enjoy role-playing. Moreover, the Internet provides abundant knowledge that cannot be found in textbooks, information that can widen their knowledge and inspire them to higher ideals.
Chinese traditions affirm that young people must use their youth to study diligently. Teenagers who enjoy too much leisure are frowned upon.
Surfing on the Internet is an ideal teenage pursuit: it allows them freedom from their parents but it costs very little. When parents realize that they are helpless in preventing their kids from visiting Internet cafés they often feel anxious.
An American survey showed that 69 percent of American adults go nuts when they get an offer for cyber sex, but these adults don't have a clue on how to get counseling for this problem. In similar circumstances, 79 percent of teenagers have the same reaction; clearly, there is no great difference between adults and teenagers. But unpredictable teenage behavior generates real anxiety in adults.
Challenge of the establishment of adults' authority
When sitting in front of a computer surfing the Internet, experience and educational background are no longer necessary guarantees toward acquiring adult power. In cyberspace, adults are no longer monopolistic providers of information.
Teenagers get acquainted online. They form groups out of the control of adults. This process has widened the gap between adults and teenagers.
Meantime, cyberspace provides an equal, fair place for everyone to communicate. Appearance, social statue and real wealth are not important. Real life interactions could certainly drive teenagers to this less pressured cyberspace.
What is the solution for Internet Addiction?
Two young men from inland China, An Zhiban and Zhang Fei, once were enrolled at the prestigious Peking University and Tsinghua University respectively. They became addicted to the Internet soon after; they both got expelled eventually. One year later, the two young men again entered the same universities after receiving high entrance exam scores. Again they both became addicted to the Internet and were expelled. Why did the two extremely intelligent people become Internet addicts?
Certainly Internet games provide great satisfaction to their users – but what is the essence of this kind of 'virtual' satisfaction? Are players compensating for what they cannot get from reality?
No doubt, some teenage Internet users become addicted to online games and get "hooked" on virtual interactivity. This creates new mental problems, and even disrupts their personal and/or school lives. More significantly, most teenage behavior reflects the adult world.
Seeing that our adult world is jam packed with addicted consumers who have forgotten the essence of life, what can we expect from our kids?
What is the most effective way to cure Internet addiction? Some authorities employ strict regulations. The Chinese government has required Internet café operators to install software that discourages teenage players from spending more than three hours online starting this July. However, this newly invented monitoring software quickly becomes invalid, sometimes days after it was implemented, according to news reports.
Plato said that the soul has three distinct divisions – rational, spiritual and desire. The rational part can guide us to fulfill our appetite, but only via our spiritual element can a man find the ideal way to link rationality with desire. Teenage Internet addicts have enough rational components to seek satisfaction in cyberspace. What they lack is a spiritual element that could guide them toward rational achievements. But, in fact, we adults lack true understanding as well. The field has a long way to go before complete comprehension of this phenomenon is reached.
(China.org.cn by Wang Zhiyong, August 28, 2007)