Net Boot Camp Jailbreak: A Look at the Press Coverage

June 10, 2010

You might have heard about the mass breakout of an Internet addiction boot camp by fourteen teenagers in Jiangsu Province this week. By itself, the story is not all that exciting; compared to other facilities, the Huai’an Internet Addiction Treatment Center doesn’t sound all that bad.

The reason why the story received some press attention concerns Net addiction centers in general, and their controversial methods in particular. A Times article highlights the connection:

It is the latest incident to highlight the sometimes brutal techniques employed at camps across China to wean young people off the internet. A 15-year-old boy was beaten to death last year days after he was admitted to a camp. Last month a court sentenced two instructors to up to ten years in jail for the incident.

Additionally, some facilities have used anti-convulsive therapy, which was recently banned by the government. Note that ECT is the sterile, clinical term for shock therapy.

With this sort of background, you can understand why this story of 14 teenagers breaking out of a facility would raise some eyebrows. I also find it interesting, but more because of the press coverage itself as opposed to the facts of this case.

The methods of this particular “treatment center” are not particularly troubling. The Global Times, in an interview with an employee named Zhao, reported the following details:

Zhao said online addicts admitted to the military-style boot camp must get out of bed at 5 am and go to bed exactly at 9:30 pm. They must undergo two hours of physical training apart from courses in calligraphy and traditional Chinese philosophy.

Sounds boring compared to the average daily regimen of a teenager, but it could be a lot worse. That being the case, what’s the best approach to reporting on this story? Most of the foreign papers apparently just took the Global Times article and summarized it. You know, there is not total agreement in China on the “disease” of “Internet addiction,” and simply taking the GT language as is essentially assumes the need for such facilities.

For example, the Telegraph‘s contribution to this story included the following headline: “Internet addicts stage jail-break from rehab centre.” Similarly, the Times headline states: “Chinese internet addicts stage mutiny at boot camp.”

Aside from the odd, and inaccurate, use of the word “mutiny” by the Times, neither of these headlines leave any room for challenging the whole “Net addiction” disease issue. In contrast, I prefer the Wall Street Journal approach: “Brief Escape From Internet-Addiction Boot Camp.” Subtle difference, but at least the WSJ is not complicit in confirming the diagnosis of these kids.

The Telegraph article in particular makes several references to the “addicts” as opposed to the “teenagers” or “children.” In contrast, the Times article begins by referring to them as “fourteen young detainees,” while the WSJ calls them “fourteen young people.”

The WSJ article is the only one that actually challenges the notion of Internet addiction head on. I think the language employed is a bit over the top, but I appreciate the effort:

Internet addiction centers in modern China often seem like the closest thing left to Maos reeducation centers: thousands of young people, often against their wills, returning to lifes basics.

It’s the thought that counts.

One last thing. When there is an obvious substantive issue directly related to the main subject matter of the news item (i.e. the controversy over Internet addiction), you would think that the journalists in question would jump on the opportunity to fill out their articles.

You would be wrong. In skipping over the controversy, some of these guys still ended up with too much empty space and had to throw in a few column inches of unrelated filler.

The Times article had two additional paragraphs tacked onto the end about the release of the government’s Internet White Paper, and censorship in general. The only transition given was that the White Paper supported continuing the government’s “strict control” over the Net. Seems completely irrelevant to me; censorship and government control over the Internet are important issues, but they have virtually nothing to do with Internet addiction.

The Telegraph article went even further, with three filler paragraphs at the end, covering various topics that included the White Paper, freedom of speech, and even Google’s move to Hong Kong.

Apparently no one cares that these kids are being locked up for spending “too much” time online.