China was the first country to diagnose internet addiction as a clinical disorder, and in 2008 the country declared it a top health threat for its youth. Across the nation, desperate parents are taking their compulsive World of Warcraft-playing sons to facilities that aggressively treat the problem with a mix of boot camp regimens and family counseling sessions. In the documentary feature Web Junkie, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival last week, Israeli filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia are flies on the wall at a treatment center for teenage boys addicted to the internet.
A short version of the Web Junkie documentary. Video via Youtube/The New York Times
At first, the camp seems like a hellish institution with boys in military fatigues peering out from behind bars. Almost all of the teens were taken there against their will. One says his parents drugged him and brought him by force. Another says his parents told him they were going on a ski trip to Russia and then dropped him off at the camp. But as the parents visit the camp where the boys live, we slowly see the value of the treatment as it rebuilds family relationships. The teenagers don't have any siblings. One boy suggests that it's the one-child-policy that makes them lonely in the first place and drives them to the MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) they compulsively play.
The camp in the film is a Chinese military facility run by Professor Tao Ran, a leading internet addiction psychiatrist and a senior colonel. The unrestricted access Professor Tao gave the filmmakers is incredible. Most of the film is in the vérité style, with some casual interviews, and while Professor Tao agreed to the documentary, the filmmakers never asked for permission from anyone higher up in the Chinese military. There were moments when they worried about someone outside the camp seeing them filming and they'd wear large hats as an attempt to hide that they were foreigners, but fortunately they were never caught and were able to give a window into the teenagers' world as they underwent treatment. At Sundance in Park City, I caught up with the filmmakers and learned more about the making of the documentary.
Motherboard: How did you first hear about the clinic?
Shosh Shlam: On the Australian television, on the news, they reported that a child was beaten to death in one of these camps [that treats internet addiction]. And I felt that to bring the story of the internet, whether it's an addiction or not, to bring a profile of our era, I should go to China because the phenomenon over there is very extreme. And China is the first country in the world that has declared it an addiction.
So I went to China and wanted to meet this Professor Tao. I couldn't find him. So I went home and said, OK, I have to give it up.
Hilla Medalia: But we never give up.
Shlam: So I went again to China. It's always like this—I found an Israeli journalist who works in China for one of our biggest newspapers in Israel. He interviewed Professor Tao a few months ago, so he gave me his cell phone number and I called. And I went there and I said listen, I want to make a film about this center, and he said OK. I was surprised.
What was his motivation for wanting to do the film—so people know he is the first one in the world to treat internet addiction?
Shlam: Of course.
Medalia: He liked the film. He cried.
Shlam: Maybe he is the one that will give us the answers. He is the pioneer.
Medalia: Also, in China they define an addict as someone who uses the internet more than six hours for things that are not work or study related. In the west, the definition is examined by behavior. But in the west, it was not declared as an addiction yet [when they filmed the documentary]. It was only added in 2013 as an appendix to the DSM.
That definition of addiction, did it make you examine yourself? I might be an addict by that definition of six or more hours.
Shlam: I wanted to hospitalize her [gesturing to Hilla her co-director]. How much is too much that you say this is an addiction, this is not an addiction? Where is the border for the definition? I think the definition should be when you stop to live your life, when you are not functioning.
Medalia: And clearly these kids are not functioning.
Shlam: So you call it an addiction. If you don't go to school, if you don't have any friends, if all the relationships in the family are damaged, maybe it's an addiction.
With this film and Love Child, about a couple who neglect their child for a computer game, there are a couple of cautionary tales about the dangers of the internet premiering at Sundance. But your film really ends up being less about the internet and more about rebuilding these families' relationships. Do you think the internet is the problem, or merely a symptom of deeper problems?
Medalia: First of all, these kids are escaping something, that's for sure.
Shlam: It comes from something that is broken. You never know what came first—the bad relationship in the family caused the escape to the internet, or the internet caused the bad relationship? The chicken or the egg?
Medalia: In our premiere there was a woman who after the screening raised her hand for the Q&A and told us she has a 20-year-old who is addicted to internet games and has been going in and out of rehab, and every time he will go through a program, when he comes back home, again the problem arises because the internet is such an integral a part of your life—unlike heroin, where you can and should live without it. Here it's like, how do you moderate it? And I think the fact the woman shared her story shows it's such a global issue.
Shlam: The reason why we did it is not to show the story of China. It can be. But we add the point of view that it's universal. It happens in China, but China is a mirror for other places.
After first hearing about the news story where a child was abused in one of these camps, did you go into filming with more expectations that it was a negative way of approaching the problem?
Shlam: The camp we went to was a different one than the one the child died in. But in a way, yes. In a way, we thought that the idea that parents have to cheat their children and put them behind bars, we thought that it's not the way.
Medalia: But we always said we would try not to be judgmental but to actually explore and see what's going on there and ask ourselves these questions.
Shlam: But in a way, we were judgmental. Because, you know, what does it mean to be judgmental? The fact that we decided to go into this space with a camera and to film it, it's in a way judgmental. But we brought the atmosphere of the space of this rehab center. We were not manipulative. What you see, that's what's there.
How did you find the cultural differences in how they practice psychiatry in the Chinese treatment center?
Medalia: Psychiatry in general is a new thing in China, and also in the other communist countries. And it used to not even exist in universities. So the psychiatrists are still very young, except for Professor Tao.
Shlam: I agree it's a new tool in Chinese society. They are very introverted people. They don't express themselves very easily. This is the reason that Professor Tao said the phenomenon is so extreme, because they are introverted.
Medalia: On the one hand, they are more connected with all those games, but in another way, you are so alone.
Shlam: And this is what one of our children [in the documentary] says: when I feel alone, I am going to the computer, and I found another lonely person on the other side. By the way, I wanted to call this film Another Lonely Person On The Other Side
Did you not have internet while you were there?
Medalia: I found internet in the camp.
Shlam: See, she's addicted! She is an internet rehab camp, and she found internet. Listen I'll tell you an episode: we were going to shoot one of the children when he got out of the camp and we landed and I made reservations for a hotel, and I say, "Oh, you know there's no internet in this one." And in a minute she blew up and said, "I'm not going, if there's no internet."
Medalia: I changed to a hotel with internet.
These boys in the camps are mostly addicted to MMORPGs right? Did you play any of them?
Medalia: I had to play them to get images for our film. I got so bored.
Shlam: This French journalist said, [for many other people] it's not the gaming that is the problem, it's the cell phone that's the problem.
Medalia: I have a ten-month-old, I buy the most safe car seat, yet I text and email when I drive. It's very dangerous. I try not to, but we all do it.
Shlam: I am getting nervous from the idea that I'm always connected. This urgency that you have to be connected all the time, you are not used to being alone anymore. I think that our identity as human beings is damaged in a way. What is your identity? If you are all the time connected to somebody, who are you? What are your thoughts? Because right away you go to a great show, you text it and you make a photo: "Now I am in the show."
Medalia: I love it.
Shlam: This texting replaces the experience; it's not the same experience. You are always outside of yourself. That's the way that I see it.
But is texting just another form of communication? It's different, but not necessarily more or less real then talking?
Shlam: I am not saying it's bad. It's another way. Everyone chooses their way. I do not text the minute I go into a concert because I want to be in the concert. It's not important to me. Sometimes you are begging for a human voice, and you only get emails. Emails are different from talking.
Medalia: To me it's not the same, but for certain things I prefer texting. And there are other things I would never replace the human voice for.