“Web Junkie,” a 2014 film that premieres tonight on the PBS series “POV,” offers a riveting behind-the-scenes look at what China calls the number-one public health threat to its teenage population: Internet addiction. Award-winning filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia follow three male teenagers — Nicky, Hacker and Hope — and their families during a three-month stint at Daxing Boot Camp, a military-style addiction treatment program in Beijing. “[‘Web Junkie’] examines the results of Internet addiction and its effects on families and interpersonal relationships,” explains Medalia. “And the film also deals with the way that Chinese society, with its culture of hyper-competitiveness, seeks to control what it perceives as the extremely negative effects of the Internet.”
The documentary opens in a dimly-lit Internet café where rows of teenagers smoke cigarettes and intently play online games like “World of Warcraft” at what looks like a super-human pace. One mother describes this type of café, to which addicts retreat for hours on end, as “an abyss swallowing her son.” The filmmakers then take us inside the no-frills treatment facility where patients, ranging from ages 13 to 18, soldier through rigorous exercises as well as group therapy, brain scans and classroom instruction, in an effort to “cure” the disease of Internet addiction. But the patients are so engrossed in the virtual world (one claims “reality is too fake”) that most aren’t convinced they even have a problem.
The camp, headed by professor Tao Ran, is one of the more than 400 rehabs that treat Internet addiction in China, one of the first countries to declare this a clinical disorder. Ran, who established the world’s first Internet addiction clinic, opened his doors to filmmakers Shlam and Medalia, inviting them to live at the center while filming.
Ran goes so far as to refer to online games as “electronic heroin,” explaining that addicts crave playing them every day, for hours on end, in much the same way other addicts crave substances. By the time they reach Daxing Boot Camp, most of the young patients have dropped out of or become suspended from school and are playing video games for at least six hours a day – often at the expense of family, friends, hygiene, nutrition, sleep and social interaction. Some gamers have even been known to wear adult diapers; a bathroom break, after all, could adversely affect their score.
Internet Addiction Across the Globe
There’s no doubt that Internet addiction has taken hold of the youth of Asia, but the U.S. isn’t far behind. (Internet addiction, also called Technology Addiction, involves the inability to control use of various kinds of technology, including Internet, smartphones, tablets and social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.) The average 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly eight hours a day viewing various multimedia; older kids spend upwards of 11 hours per day doing so, according to a report by Kaiser Family Foundation, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
A June 2013 comScore Media Metrix survey showed that an estimated 671 million people worldwide play at least one online video game a month using a PC or laptop and 145 million gamers across the globe play daily. “Internet addiction is a global phenomenon … kids in America and all over the world are playing the exact same games as the Chinese kids, and actually these games are social games, so the kids in China are playing with kids in the U.S.,” notes Medalia.
While Internet addiction isn’t included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), Internet gaming disorder (also called Video Game Addiction) is listed as a “condition for further study.” The DSM-5 doesn’t go so far as to classify excessive, compulsive video gaming as an addiction. “Even though Internet addiction is not yet considered a clinical diagnosis in the U.S., it’s clear that American teenagers are using the Internet or other screens for many hours a day,” says Medalia. “We hope the film brings attention to the phenomenon and creates a discussion about the issue so that parents and children can understand the effects.”
Internet addiction is a concern not just for its impact on health and relationships. Those who suffer from it may experience measurable brain changes and negative effects on intellectual function — such as short-term memory loss — similar to changes from substance abuse and from other behavioral addictions. Unlike substances, however, you can’t really take technology out of your life, notes Medalia. “We need it for work, study, etc. … so the challenge [becomes] to learn how to take advantage of it and control the risks — which is not easy.”
The Loneliness of a Gamer
“The Internet has created a deep change in human relationships; we are more connected, but at the same time more alone,” notes Medalia. This observation ties in to perhaps the most poignant part of the film: its inside look at the profound loneliness and lack of real-world affection displayed by the teenagers, especially when it comes to their relationships with their fathers. In one scene a therapist asks Hope to stand in front of his father and call him “Dad” 30 times. He does so, then unexpectedly utters, “I love you, Dad.” Hope’s father reciprocates the sentiment, though without physical contact. Face-to-face communication and expression of emotions, are, sadly, not easy for Internet addicts. In the virtual world “it’s very easy to say ‘I love you’ 1,000 times; [just hit] CTRL +C, CTRL +V” over and over, notes a young man in the documentary.
In “Web Junkie,” one parent observes cultural factors likely contributing to the growing problem of Internet addiction in China. This includes China’s one-child policy along with the fact that Chinese parents typically place great pressure on children to succeed in school. What results are feelings of isolation and stress. The kids turn to the virtual world to escape from difficult emotions and, as Nicky puts it, “to meet another lonely person who sits on the other side of the computer.”
At the film’s end the question of whether China has discovered the answer when it comes to treating this widespread problem still remains. Only time will tell whether these boot camps can retrain teens to use technology in a healthy way.
Photo courtesy of Dogwoof Global