Editor's note: Ian reported on a Chinese boot camp for kids addicted to the Internet on Saturday's NBC Nightly News. He also filed this blog from Beijing.
The piercing blast of a whistle cuts through the freezing pre-dawn air at a military hospital on the outskirts of Beijing. It's followed by barked orders to wake up, get out of bed, get dressed and line up - "Now!"
The bleary-eyed youngsters, half asleep, stumble from their bunks, pulling on baggy military fatigues and sneakers, and march awkwardly towards a parade ground for their first work-out of the day.
They're a disheveled bunch, without an inkling of military bearing, more used to exercising their fingers on a keyboard than their legs in a field. And that, says the clinic, is the problem. The 50 mostly teenage boys (and a handful of girls) are hooked on online computer games, and have been sent by their parents to China's first Internet addiction clinic to help them kick a habit the director says is every bit as damaging as drugs.
"The whole personality changes. The impact on mental health is the same as taking heroin. That's why we call it electronic heroin - electronic opium," says Tao Ran, who set up the clinic.
China now has 130 million Internet users, second only to the U.S., and Mr. Tao reckons there are 10 million addicts, spending eight to ten hours a day online, often more, and showing the tell-tale symptoms of addiction: depression, moodiness and often violence. He says the most worrying cases are between 13 and 17 years old.
VIDEO: NBC's Ian Williams reports from a Chinese boot camp trying to cure young people of their Internet addiction.
Among the teenagers being treated during our visit was 17-year-old Guan Zhao, who'd tried to take his own life after his parents stopped him using the computer. "I clashed with my parents when they tried to stop me. It was becoming impossible. That's when I tried to kill myself," he says.
His arms are deeply scarred from where he slashed himself. His parents did eventually convince him that he needed treatment. Others, like 16-year-old Zhang Xiao Qing, were tricked into coming, his mother telling him she was taking him for treatment for a swollen wrist. That followed Zhang's smashing of his bedroom furniture while he searched hysterically for his modem, hidden by his parents. "I didn't want to come here," he told me, rather gloomily, "but now I'm here I suppose I might as well go along with it."
In a nearby room, other parents had just delivered their son, having told him they were going for treatment for his father's back. "He doesn't listen, doesn't want to work, doesn't want to do anything," the mother complains, while the son sat brooding in another room, surrounded by military nurses, resigned to a month without a mouse. "He's our only child. We had to do something," his father says.
The youngsters being treated are mostly the only children of well-to-do parents, who are able to afford the $1,200 cost of four weeks of treatment. That's about four times the average monthly wage in Beijing.
What that buys is a large dose of boot camp and cold turkey, though this correspondent did spot a couple of handheld devices that had been sneaked past the guards.
The clinic is run by the army in the grounds of Beijing Military Region Central Hospital.
Mr. Tao claims a 70 percent success rate, with the other 30 percent checking out and logging back in to their computers. He also says that Internet addiction in China may also in part be a form of rebellion against parents who are too ambitious for their only child and try to exert too much control over their so-called little emperor. "Many Chinese parents don't know how to communicate effectively with their children or even how to use the Internet," he says.
Internet addiction clinics, modeled on Mr. Tao's, are now opening in cities across China, and the authorities are so concerned they have issued tough new rules to Internet cafes designed to limit the amount of time teenagers are allowed to remain online.
The clinic isn't all boot camp. They were holding dance classes during our visit, though after spending hours in front of a screen the youngsters were hardly nimble-footed, and clearly were a little awkward with anything that didn't involve a keyboard. Once a week they travel to a thinning forest a few miles from the clinic and do battle. After dividing into two teams they have a mock gunfight - laser tag. It's designed to show them that a real shootout is very different from a computer game. Though that serious point did seem a little lost as they let their hair down after the rigors of the parade ground.
"That was great," said one victorious player from the red team, as he sprayed imaginary bullets at his vanquished opponents as they returned to the bus, covered in grass and dirt. One of the soldiers organizing the game gave the boy a severe look. This wasn't meant to be fun. Several boys suppressed their giggles, while another trained his laser site on the soldier's back. Take that.
"It's better than a computer game," another member of the red team said to me.
Harnessing the Internet has contributed a great deal to China's rapid economic development, though the country's communist leaders often seem ambivalent about many aspects of its impact - the loss of control, and the influence on a generation that spends too much time at the screen.
There is also a tendency here to see boot camp as a solution to all manner of social ills. Mr. Tao hopes his clinic will be a model for the rest of the world.
I asked Zhang Xiao Qing, who'd wrecked his bedroom searching for his hidden modem, what he'll do when he goes home.
"Oh, I'll play again," he insisted, "though maybe not as much as before. But I'll play."