Friday, March 09, 2007

If addiction's the problem, prohibition's not the answer

[This is the pre-edited version of my latest muse article for Nature's online news.]

China's ban on new internet cafés raises questions about its online culture

The decision by China to freeze the opening of any new Internet cafés for a year from this July has inevitably been interpreted as a further attempt by the Chinese authorities to control and censor access to politically sensitive information.

China defends the ban on the grounds of protecting susceptible teenagers from becoming addicted to games, chatrooms and online porn. Yu Wen, deputy of the National People's Congress, has been quoted as saying "It is common to see students from primary and middle schools lingering in internet bars overnight, puffing on cigarettes and engrossed in online games."

The restriction on internet cafés will certainly assist the Chinese government's programme of web censorship (although there are already more than 110,000 of these places in China). But to suggest that the move is merely a cynical attempt to dress up state interference as welfare would be to overlook another reason why it should be challenged.

It’s quite possible that the government is genuinely alarmed at the fact that, according to a recent report by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, teenagers in China are becoming addicted to the internet younger and in greater numbers than in other countries. The report claimed that 13 percent of users played or chatted online for more than 38 hours a week – longer than the typical working week of European adults.

Sure, you can try to address this situation (which is disturbing if the figures are right) by limiting users' access to their drug. But anyone involved in treating additive behaviour knows that you'll solve little unless you get to the cause.

Why is the cyberworld so attractive to Chinese teenagers? It doesn't take much insight to see a link between repression in daily life and the liberation (partly but not entirely illusory) offered online.

Yet it would be simplistic to ascribe the desire to escape online with the political oppression that certainly exists in Chinese society. After all, there are more oppressive places in the world. Indeed, it is arguably the liberalization of Chinese society that adds to the factors contributing to its internet habit.

There is in fact a nexus of such factors that might be expected to prime young people in China for addition to the net: among them, the increase in wealth and leisure and the emergence of a middle class, the replacement of a demonized West with a glamorized one (both are dangerous), the conservatism and expectations of a strongly filial tradition, the loneliness of a generation lacking siblings because of China's one-child policy, and the allure and status of new technology in a rapidly modernizing society.

Stephanie Wang, a specialist on Chinese internet regulation at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, suggests that the problems of internet use by young people may also simply be more visible in China than in the West, where it tends to happen behind the closed doors of teenagers’ bedrooms rather than in public cybercafés. Wang adds that the online demographic in Asia is more biased towards young people, and probably more male-dominated.

The Chinese government hardly helps its cause by justifying internet control with puritanical rhetoric: talk of "information purifiers", "online poison" and the need for a "healthy online culture" all too readily suggests the prurient mixture of horror and fascination that characterizes the attitude of many repressive regimes to more liberal cultures. But let's not forget that much the same was once said in the West about the corrupting influence of rock'n'roll.

And anyway, surely youth has always needed an addition. In a culture where alcohol abuse is rare, drug use carries terrifyingly draconian penalties, sexuality is repressed and pop culture is sanitized, getting your kicks online might seem your only option. As teenage vices go, it is pretty mild.

As with all new technologies, from television to cell phones, the antisocial behaviour they can elicit is all too easily blamed on the technology itself. That's far safer than examining the latent social traits that the technology has made apparent. In this regard, China is perhaps only reacting as other cultures have done previously.

So rather than adding more bricks to its Great Firewall, or fretting about youngsters chain-smoking their way through the mean streets of Grand Theft Auto, China might benefit from thinking about why it has the addition-prone youth cyberculture that it claims to have.


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