Teen Dead After Two Days At Internet Addiction Camp

By Keri Blakinger 08/18/17

There have been multiple reports of alleged abuse at military-style internet addiction boot camps. 

hand pointing to a computer screen

When they saw him, he looked like he’d been beaten. His torso was bruised. His arms were bright red. His legs were covered in scars and welts. 

It was just two days earlier that Liu Dongmei and her husband had packed their son off to a six-month internet addiction camp—two days later he was dead.

In China, these camps have gained some notoriety. In 2009, a teenager died days after checking into a treatment center, when his “trainers” beat him to death. Another suffered a dislocated bone and head injuries. And, most famously, last year a 16-year-old allegedly tied her mother to a chair and starved her to death in revenge for being sent to an abusive center

But despite all that, Liu had faith. She’d read about the camp and the successes it claimed, and she thought she’d finally found a place that could fix her son, Li Ao. The 18-year-old had lost all interest in life outside the internet. And his worried mother just wanted a solution. 

So Liu and her husband forked over roughly $3,500 to send their boy to an internet addiction boot camp. After that, it’s not clear exactly what happened. But two days in, Liu got an urgent phone call and found out that her son had been taken to a hospital and later died. 

"My son's body was completely covered with scars, from top to toe,” she told the media. “When I sent my son to the center he was still fine, how could he have died within 48 hours?”

Afterward, authorities shut down the Fuyang center to investigate, and the director and four staff members were picked up by police. The government said it had given the place repeated warnings before the teen’s death, but still the facility stayed open.

But despite the occasional horror stories, China’s military-style internet addiction boot camps are still popular with parents. In theory, treatment consists of activities like exercise drills, therapy, reading and games. But sometimes there's a lot more that goes on, it seems. 

In 2009, the Chinese health ministry advised a ban on electric shock at internet boot camps. It wasn’t until this year that the state media reported on draft legislation that would actually prohibit shock therapy and beatings.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.