Professor Tao Hongkai was browsing the Wuhan Evening News when his attention was drawn to the story of an Internet-addicted girl and her helpless and distraught mother. Qu Qian, 17, once a top student in her class, was skipping school to get her daily fix of online gaming.
It was after the mother fruitlessly called the police that she took a last-resort option: she contacted the media. Fortunately, that day in May of 2004, professor Tao put down the paper and called the family. Several days later, after a nine-hour consultation with mother and daughter, the teenager agreed to skip the Internet cafe instead of classes.
Qu was good to her word. She's stayed out of the Internet cafes, today her grades are again at the top of her class and she and her mother are friends again.
Sixty-year-old Tao Hongkai is a guest professor with Central China Normal University in Wuhan, capital of Central China's Hubei Province, where he teaches four courses as part of what he describes as "full-fledged character education."
Though Tao originally expected to perhaps help a single distraught mother and her daughter, after his success with Qu became known, he developed unexpected fame. He is now renowned - and in high-demand - as a troubleshooter-therapist for Internet addicted kids.
Not long ago he found himself consulting to a group of 65 parents in Wuhan. It was perhaps while looking into that groups' worried faces that he fully realized the true scope of what could become a full-blown societal affliction.
According to a recent survey conducted in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, among the 94 million net users in China, minors under 18 make up 16.5 million, or 19 percent. Significantly, of those 16.5 million minors, 2.44 million of them show a tendency for Internet-addiction, or "Internet-Addiction Syndrome."
So it's not surprising that Tao is now deluged with calls from parents of kids who obsessively surf the Web, relentlessly play online games, or forever hang around chat rooms. Some parents from faraway areas now take trains to seek out the professor's guidance. His home phone has become something of a hotline and the e-mail flows in.
The professor's home now serves as a makeshift psychological clinic, where he offers no-charge consulting to parents and their e-obsessed teens. During weekends, from 12 noon to 12 at night, Prof. Tao house is active with the afflicted.
To reach as many parents as possible, Tao spreads the word via local websites and television stations. But he's realized the job may be too big for one professor. "Now, I go to other cities to offer free training for volunteers." Tao said, "It's the only way to reach and help more teenagers and their parents."
To date, his volume is impressive. Tao has visited more than 21 cities, delivered more than 100 reports, trained more than 3,000 volunteers and successfully helped more than 300 teenagers to deal with their problems. And more than 50,000 parents have attended his conferences.
Tao explains that there is no "magic bullet" in dealing with the Internet-addition. His remedy was to talk sensibly, equally and graciously with the Internet-addicted teenagers. And he says his non-parent status only helps.
"When the teen doesn't reject you (as a parent figure), you can convey to them that their parents are concerned out of love," he explains. "Eventually, you get it through to them that they can return that love by studying hard."
Tao pointed out that the problem of Internet-addition is largely due to an imbalance in upbringing and practical education. He says children's' material needs are overly satisfied, while their spiritual and emotional cultivation is ignored. He encourages parents with "problem teenagers" to change their own ways to earn the trust and respect of their children.
The professor also explains his personal disdain for another officially-sanctioned
negative: the test-oriented education. Tao instead recommends a quality-oriented education, one which teaches youths how to become useful and successful adults. According to Tao, the worth of an individual's overall character rests with psychological, professional and comprehensive qualities. It is not simply a matter of satisfactory test scores.
Tao explains that he does not consider himself a professional specializing in overcoming Internet-addition, but one who is a proponent of that comprehensive life-affirming, quality-oriented education. A byproduct of his work is a call for, and an expectation that, society will join to guide children in the proper use of the Internet.
Quite simply, he says: "We should teach our children that computers are tools... not toys."
Because of his altruistic action, personal sacrifice and contribution to the greater community, Professor Tao was recently conferred the title of "Loving Ambassador in Network Civilization," by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Youth League, and his story was reported by more than 200 media outlets in China.
(China Pictorial March 25, 2005)