Comment: What do China's web junkie rehab camps say about modern life?

A scene from the documentary Web Junkie, directed by Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia. (Courtesy of Dogwoof Global.)

China is the first country to label internet addiction a clinical disorder. But is the government's attempt to stem the 'number one public health threat to teenagers' working - or even warranted?

Now that China is the first nation to declare ‘internet addiction’ as a real and treatable disease, 400 clinics have been constructed to cure the estimated 10 million sufferers.

China calls them ‘Internet Addiction Treatment Centres’.

I call them ‘Gulags For Gamers’.

Wired up windows, bunk beds in cramped cells, military discipline, compulsory medication group therapy sessions – and no internet – all combine to help mostly males aged 13-18 get off ‘electronic heroin’.

Teenagers can’t win.

If they have short attention spans, they are labeled ADD. If they can concentrate for hours, they are called addicts.

Web Junkie is a compelling documentary that goes inside one of the rehab centres and reveals a story that may be less about internet addiction and more about the effects of family life in China.

It’s heartbreaking to see the abject misery of the kids in the Daxing camp located south of Beijing.  There are bouts of uncontrollable sobbing, begging to go home and implored promises to be ‘good’.  Some of the children were tricked or drugged in order to admit them into the rehab centre.

There is good reason to fear the rules and conditions of the camps.  On his first day, a boy age 15 was instructed to run 80 laps of the quadrangle.  He did what he could and collapsed.  He was ordered to complete the laps.  He collapsed again and its claimed he was beaten to death

It was his story that motivated award winning documentary filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia to make Web Junkie - nominated for a Grand Jury Prize when it premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

But is internet addiction the real problem or a symptom of China’s one-child policy?  An only-child isolated in a family with two parents obsessed with ‘study’ and ‘success’ creates two distinct needs.

There’s a need to escape parental pressure. And there’s a need to connect with other children.

Teenagers love to be a part of their own generation.  So these rehab camps appear to be extreme punishments for kids who are want to play games with other kids and are doing it the only way they can - in a virtual world.

Although, when the rehab inmates talk among themselves, another disturbing picture emerges.  Some take passion beyond obsession.  They brag about how long they can play World Of Warcraft.  One claimed he played for 300 consecutive hours with short naps.  Then someone topped him by claiming to have played continuously for two months.

They wear diapers so the game isn’t interrupted by the need to pee.

Others stay for days at internet cafes to escape their complaining parents.  Do they need professional help?  Maybe.  But is a gulag the place to get it?

There’s also something more insidious underpinning the re-education provided by the camps.

By declaring internet addiction a disease and the most serious threat to youth mental health in the country, China is pressuring parents to control internet access within the home.

The camps are government-sanctioned but not government-funded so parents save or go into debt to get their children ‘cured’.  But what actually results, is an even greater divide within the family.  Children emerge from treatment saying whatever they have to say to avoid being re-admitted. 


Related: The Feed's Marc Fennell checks out a real life video game simulation where players feel pain when they get shot.

In Web Junkies, Hope says to a friend on the day of his release, ‘I’ll be the same as I was before.’

This is despite the Daxing Centre addiction specialist Professor Tao Ran claiming a 70% cure success rate. 

Another inmate Nicky says, ‘when I’m lonely, I talk to a little bear, which is my toy. Or I talk to the computer. I don’t think my friends online are fictitious. They are also human beings - another lonely person who sits on the other side of the computer. We care about each other.’

The word ‘teenager’ only emerged in the 20th century but persecution of this age group has a rich history.  Take dancing, for example.

In the 50s, Elvis and his fans could face arrest for dancing with gyrating hips.

The 1984 Oscar nominated film Footloose was based on real life.  Dancing was banned for 90 years in Elmore, Oklahoma until 1978 when teenagers challenged and overturned the ruling.

Right now in the US, twerking is being banned under the threat of cancelling the school prom.

It’s rough to label teenagers as addicts when they are discovering what interests them and how to interact with each other even if it is mostly online.

In Web Junkies, one of the kids sums up life in the real world. 

‘Reality is too fake.’

In her Director’s Statement, Shlam says ‘technology has become the architect of our intimacy’.

Do kids just need a big, virtual group hug?

Renée Brack is a journalist, media producer and adventurer.


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