China is the first country to deem internet addiction a clinical disorder and has established 400 treatment centers to address this public health concern. Web Junkie by Israeli directors Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia introduces one such rehab center just outside of Beijing with a scene of a bawling teenage boy completely distraught because he just learned that he had been committed for treatment – after all the paperwork was done. His surprise at his arrival at the Daxing Chinese Teen-Agers Mental Growth Center was not uncommon. Others were tricked by their parents (“They told told me we were going skiing in Russia”) or drugged and woken up there.
These desperate measures by desperate parents aren’t just for the kid who doesn’t come down for dinner because he’s chatting with his friends online. The patients, mostly teenage boys, were online playing games such as World of Warcraft 10 to 12 hours a day or another favourite was playing League of Legends with their LoL Smurfs account, skipping school, spending the equivalent of the average Chinese worker’s annual salary on video games, or wearing diapers as not to miss a moment. One bragged that he played continuously for 300 hours and was quickly dismissed by an unimpressed fellow patient. The center’s director, Dr. Tao Ran, a bona fide mental health professional, likens their behavior to heroin addicts’ and calls the games “electronic heroin”.
At Daxing, they are cut-off cold turkey. No access to league boosting options, no games, no internet. It’s not entirely clear what’s replaced their time online, but the film shows them half-heartedly doing calisthenics or in therapy. Most (some with bemusement) have resigned themselves to the minimum three-month stay during which they dress in military fatigues, are housed in a dormitory four to a room, and follow a somewhat strict regimen. Despite the spartan environment, they are generally treated well and the compassion and concern for their well-being from the staff is genuine.
The teens talk to the camera, and the filmmakers observe them when they are hanging out. They seem like typical teens, but you don’t get a good picture of who they really are. In one scene, one of the patients is seen carrying a guitar case, but we never see him play the guitar. The camera joins in therapy sessions, some of which are with parents. The film is at its best when it conveys the parents’ and their children’s raw emotions. When fathers weep, mothers express guilt, and children lash out physically, you feel how broken they are.
We get a good look at a few of the center’s treatments, but missing is a discussion of the effectiveness of the rehab program. What are the criteria for admitting and discharging a patient? When one of the boys is declared to be cured and leaves the center with his father, it evokes little empathy. When was his breakthrough? What became of him? There is also no mention of if/how the center finds a balance – there is nothing wrong with teenagers playing on these games every so often, or even spending a little money on unranked smurfs, so do they stop them playing altogether or just help them to find a healthy medium?
The center correctly recognizes the roots of internet addiction for many teens. “They feel no heroism or satisfaction in their real lives,” says Dr. Tao. Online gaming is an escape from reality, be it inattentive busy parents or pressures of modern life. Sounds like typical teenage ennui, but given China’s enormous social changes in the past generation, there’s risk of losing part of a generation. Unfortunately, the directors neglect to examine the larger issues of disaffected youth in China, China’s social engineering, and the government’s concern for social stability. Without this broader context, the film is tainted with Western voyeurism. This tone was reflected in a Q&A with co-director Shosh Shlam following a screening last week at Film Forum.
She opened the session with questions to a mental health professional friend in the audience about whether internet addiction is real and his opinion of Dr. Tao’s ernest treatments. To varying degrees, he and others in the audience were somewhat incredulous of the existence of the condition and of Dr. Tao’s methods. One person likened a therapy activity to the practices of the Cultural Revolution. Another wondered why the government didn’t just ban the internet cafés or the games “like they do everything else”. I wasn’t sure if she was being flippant or if she unintentionally endorsed the government’s practices. Nevertheless, Shlam and some in the audience emphasized that China’s mental health system is still in its nascent stages and is developing.
Shlam has said she hopes that the film could change conditions at these centers, but the film has not been approved for screening in China.
Interview with the directors Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia:
Short adaptation of the film from a New York Times op-ed by the directors:
- The rehab center had female patients, but none of their parents consented for them to be on film for fear they would be forever stigmatized and unmarriageable.
- The filming took place over four months, and the directors claim that the government did not know they were filming a movie.
- The Daxing Chinese Teen-Agers Mental Growth Center was shut down after the government learned about the film, and Dr. Tao was transferred to another institution.
- Internet addiction disorder is not yet recognized by the DSM, but is considered worthy of investigation.
- The United States opened its first internet addiction rehab center about a year ago.
- During the Q&A, a beating death of a patient at a treatment center (not Daxing) promoted to illustrate the abuse at these places. However, it was more of an anomaly, and China has banned the use of physical punishment for the patients.
79 MINS. • IN MANDARIN CHINESE WITH ENGLISH SUBTITLES
Web Junkie plays at Film Forum through August 19.
79 min, in Mandarin with English subtitles
Image: Dogwoof Films