Internet addiction, for better or worse, started off as a poorly-hinted joke, made by an American psychologist in 1995. But it's an unfortunate reality for Chinese teenagers, some of whom have died, had hands chopped off, and are subject to any number of physical indignities due to internet addiction, which China classified as a disease in 2008. Since then, the country has been ramping up efforts to create more internet addiction treatment facilities.
And now Web Junkie, a documentary about exactly that, is making national television in the US. Web Junkie follows the rehabilitation of several teenage internet addicts as they're sent to a rehabilitation camp in the south of Beijing—the teenagers say that some are drugged by their parents, some are tricked into thinking that they're being brought someplace other than a net-weaning bootcamp. But the common thread among them is their unsettling commitment to escapism, one that pulls them away from families and real life friends and onto "realer" online friends.
It was the only place that would allow them to record, Israeli filmmaker Shosh Shlam told me. The filmmakers were allowed to stay at the treatment facility, which was headed by Tao Ran, a former psychiatrist for the Beijing Army, for four months—the minimum time the facility requires to consider its patient "rehabilitated."
"In seeing [internet addiction] as an addiction or social phenomena, China is a mirror to the rest of the world," Shlam told me. "The phenomena is everywhere." When she brought up the idea of documenting social phenomena spurred by internet use, she said that she wanted to go where it was highly prevalent: China, where she says there are now over 400 such rehabilitation camps.
The subject of Chinese internet rehabilitation camps isn't new, but Web Junkie is the first of its kind to bring an insider documentarian angle to it. The film shows patients being subject to a number of exercises, some physical and some psychological, to nudge them into addressing the root of their problems. This is counter to the usual portrayal of rehab camps as military probation. While patients are dressed in fatigues and have to do exercises, it's not tremendously different than the military training most high schoolers and college students have to go through.
There are also some surprisingly tense moments. The team was able to capture a family therapy session, in which a father had to come to terms with his own absence and break down in tears, and a child has to explain why he kept dropping back into the online world.
The Chinese, Shlam notes, are particularly reserved with their feelings. This is in part due to its one-child policy, which effectively robbed an entire generation of Chinese citizens of any siblings, and a repressive career-obsessed culture, which has foisted a do-or-die attitude to academic success. But this has also caused a rift between children and their parents, whose absence or lack of commitment were identified as part of the problem. And the awkwardness of a therapist having to ask a son to say "I love you" to his father effectively encapsulates that.
China became the first country to recognize internet addiction as a classified mental disorder—no country comes close, although Japan has started some of its own camps. It didn't seriously become a candidate for the Manual of Mental Disorders, the American Psychologist Association's almanac, until 2013, at which time it was only considered "as a condition warranting more clinical research and experience." That's pretty soft-handed for something that affects some 6 percent of people worldwide.
But with the same brand of humor that doctors use to wrest lightheartedness out of an otherwise morbid job, one Ivan Goldberg, then a New York psychologist in 1995, wrote a classification for internet addiction that ended up being terrifyingly accurate for a person just observing the internet's nascent years.
"Internet Addiction Disorder makes it sound as if one were dealing with heroin, a truly addicting substance… To medicalize every behavior by putting it into psychiatric nomenclature is ridiculous," Dr. Goldberg said to the New Yorker.
It might be a bit poetic, if not horrifying, to hear that echoed 16 years later.
Web Junkie makes its national premiere on PBS on Monday, July 13.