Safety net

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 August, 2006, 12:00am


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Shanghai opened the mainland's first home for internet addicts last week, offering shelter and counselling to teenagers - to prevent them from spending the night at one of the city's many internet cafes. Although billed by local media as a place to help minors withdraw from computer games and surfing the internet, the Rainbow Centre is actually a halfway house for youngsters who have problems at home.

The centre, located in the Pudong district, can only accommodate six to eight people - but organisers hope to expand to more locations around the city. Teenagers who can't, or don't, want to go home can spend a night there. The dormitory-style accommodation has already hosted its first guests - including three teenage boys on opening night. The experiment has the backing of the local government, which is offering funding.

'We try to persuade children to go home. If we cannot, we bring them to the shelter,' said Wu Guanliang, who is head of the home's operator - the government-backed Shanghai Sunshine Community Youth Affairs Centre. This project is an acknowledgement of the growing social problems involving minors in Shanghai. Mr Wu said the idea was inspired by similar programmes in Hong Kong.

Mr Wu and his team of volunteers have been patrolling internet cafes since 2004, trying to help teenagers with psychological or family problems. The highest number of troubled youngsters can be found during school holidays - such as the summer vacation soon drawing to a close. Teams patrol internet cafes usually after midnight. The teenagers have to agree to go to the shelter, and persuading them can take hours of effort.

Instead of turning teenagers back onto the streets, workers at the shelter aim to convince them to go home, and will contact their families to help smooth the way. Counsellors encourage them to return to school, or even help them find jobs. Besides a bed, teenagers can find books and other entertainment at the shelter.

Shanghai has recently cracked down on internet cafes, partly for safety reasons and worries about the impact on children. Technically, customers must show their identification cards - and children are barred - but the rules are only weakly enforced. Local television recently showed a raid on an unlicensed internet cafe, a single darkened room where young children paid 2.5 yuan to play games.

A 19-year-old woman secretly gave birth in the washroom of one establishment last month, and left the baby for dead. She was later detained by police after being identified from a video surveillance camera in the internet cafe. A migrant from Guizhou province , she used a fake ID to register at internet cafes, where she often spent the night because she couldn't afford a hotel. Now, teenagers like her can find shelter.