‘Web Junkie’, a jarring new documentary by award-winning Israeli filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia, documents the rising phenomenon of Chinese youth addicted to the internet.
While here in the U.S. internet addiction is not classified as a clinical disorder, in China—where the problem is endemic among youth and trending upward— it is an officially diagnosed clinical disorder and considered a national public health problem.
The film, which airs nationally tonight, exposes the repressive treatment methods in Daxing Boot Camp, a military-style camp that seeks to cure Chinese youth of internet addiction.
In Web Junkie, Professor Tao, the psychologist who proudly runs the program for 13-18 year old addicts, classifies addiction as spending more than 6 hours a day online—not for the purposes of work or studying—and says it can be as serious as a drug addiction.
“They are addicted to the internet like heroin addicts… That’s why we call it ‘electronic heroin,’” he tells the camera.
“If you take a brain of a heroin addict, and the brain of an internet addict, you will see the same damage, and the symptoms are the same. They’re losing social skills, it’s very difficult for them to create relationships. They’re very lonely, they’re very depressed, and they have zero emotions,” Shlam said in a phone interview with The Jewish Week, quoting research done by Professor Tao.
On the film the boys boast about World Of Warcraft binges that exceed 300 hours straight. “You think that’s a lot?” one of the boys retorts, “I spent over two months straight in the summer on the computer.”
Many of the film’s subjects had dropped out of school, and were spending full days at internet cafes playing video games when they were brought—most against their will–into the program. Offline relationships with their families and friends disintegrated.
“Many of them are so addicted to their games,they think going to the toilet will affect their performance, so they wear diapers,” Shlam said.
“It is an abyss swallowing my son,” says a mother on the film.
For many, the lines between the virtual world and reality are blurred. “When I feel lonely I talk to my toy bear, or to my computer. I dont think my friends online are fictitious,” says a patient.
The boot-camp employs military discipline style training alongside family discussion sessions, and what appears to be very scientifically-questionable lessons led by Professor Tao.
Many of the boys report being coerced against their will into the program; some were drugged with sleeping pills by their parents and transferred to the facility. A boy who tries to escape is put in isolation for 15 days.
The film doesn’t deal with whether these punitive tactics are successful, but Tao claims a 70% success rate.
Though China suffers from an extreme version of the problem (there are over 400 rehab centers around the country), it’s a global phenomena, Shlam says, one that is growing rapidly in Europe and the United States.
“China acts as a mirror into what is really a universal problem while the Western world waits for the DSM to declare it a disorder,” she said.
American youths are more plugged in than ever.
A 2013 report by The American Academy of Pediatrics found that the average American 8-10 year old spends nearly 8 hours a day engaged with a variety of media, primarily T.V., but also new media (smartphones, tablets, computers), usually with little supervision by adults. It also found that 75% of 12 to 17-year-olds own cell-phones. Oversaturation, the report concludes, can affect a child’s normal development and is associated with many different risks and health problems, though it doesn’t specify what health problems.
Currently in the U.S. there is one rehab program dedicated specifically to internet addiction. ReSTART is located in Fall City, Wash., and according to its website offers a “digital detox from Internet and gaming use,” no doubt using different treatment methods than the Daxing Boot Camp.
Israel is also not immune to this growing issue. Though internet addiction is not a declared disorder in Israel, Shlam thinks it is just a matter of time, as health professionals come around to recognizing the harmful effects of internet overuse.
In a report last month for the Ethos Institute, Israeli anthropologist Tamir Leon says that Israeli youth are among the top in the world for time spent in front of a screen. Children aged 12-18 spend about 9 hours a day in front of a screen, she claims, which can strongly affect communication skills, and violent behavior, she warns.
One Daxing patient insists his addiction is not a disease. “It’s a social phenomenon,” he said.
But Shlam says the line between the two is very thin. “It’s not either or,” she said, “Our children are losing the language of feeling.”
The film was part of the Official Selection of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and airs tonight, 10pm on PBS’s POV Series (locally on THIRTEEN). The film can also be viewed online at PBS.org until August 15.