A group of men who operated a self-proclaimed internet addiction treatment facility in southeastern China have been sentenced to prison, after being found guilty of locking children in solitary isolation for up to 10 days.
The facility is one of several hundred boot camp-style detox centers to have opened across China throughout the last ten years, amid rising concerns around the amount of time young people spend online.
Despite widespread censorship and tight government control, China has one of the world’s largest internet user bases, with more 850 million people having access to the web, including around 200 million online users aged between 15 and 35.
Treatment camps saw a boom in popularity in the years following China’s decision to officially recognize internet addiction as a mental disorder in 2008, but a raft of negative headlines and allegations of serious physical abuse has led to growing concerns in recent years.
In 2014, a 19-year-old girl died in the city of Zhengzhou in Henan Province, after she was reportedly beaten by instructors at an internet detox center, according to Chinese state media reports. Other reports have alleged camps have used treatments likened to electroconvulsive therapies (ECT).
On Tuesday, court documents show four men – surnamed Wu, Ren, Zhang and Qu – were found guilty of illegal detention after they confined 12 young people in solitary confinement at the Yuzhang Academy in Jiangxi province, for up to 10 days. Eleven of the victims were less than 18 years old at the time.
Wu was sentenced to almost three years in prison, while Ren and Zhang received two years and seven months and one year and ten month-terms respectively. Qu was sentenced to 11 months.
The facility made headlines as far back as 2017, after the local government announced that it would investigate allegations of strict corporal punishment being used on students in an attempt to “cultivate teenagers’ moral character,” according to reports in state media.
According to state-run tabloid Global Times, former students accused staff at the Yuzhang Academy of putting new students in “little black rooms” with nothing but a blanket and a pot for a toilet.
“I was being watched all the time,” one former student, surnamed Xuan, told the Global Times in 2017.
The Chinese government has taken a range of measures in recent years to crack down on internet addiction. In November, Beijing announced a curfew for people under the 18 to stop them playing online video late into the night. On weekdays, they can play up to 90 minutes, and up to three hours on weekends.
Minors in China are banned from playing online video games between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m..
In May 2019, the Chinese government introduced an anti-addiction system for children by adding a “juvenile mode” to 18 popular video sites, which restricted the users’ usage times and content.