In China, Internet addiction is a serious matter. In fact, people see it as a clinical disorder that requires formal treatment.
As China has the greatest number of Internet users in the world – 649 million as of 2014 – the government believes that 10 percent of its Internet-surfing minors (26 million) are obsessed with online gaming and social media to an unhealthy extent.
The country declared Internet addiction as a national health problem in 2008 and since then, more than 400 rehabilitation centers have popped up all over the place to help these young adults with the supposed disorders.
As revealed in Web Junkie, a documentary by Israeli filmmakers Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam, the individuals in these treatment centers are locked up in separate rooms, completely cut off from friends, family and the thing they love the most – the Internet.
The film documents professor Tao Ran, the man in charge of the Chinese Teenagers Mental Growth Center in Beijing, along with three teenagers – all between the ages of 13 and 18 – as they go through the tough treatment designed to cure them off their compulsion.
Most of these facilities are military style boot-camps where miserable and frightened teens soldier their way through confinement, medications and exercises aimed to instill discipline and restraint. Simply put, they are basically treated like drug addicts and juveniles.
“Internet addiction leads to problems in the brain similar to those derived from heroin consumption,” Tao explained. “But, generally, it is even more damaging. It destroys relationships and deteriorates the body without the person knowing. All of them have eyesight and back problems and suffer from eating disorders.”
These teenagers are either drugged or tricked into coming to these facilities and are not allowed to use any electronic gadget during their stay.
“Addicts crave and look for heroin every day. The teenagers we have here crave and look forward to playing games online every day,” the professor told the filmmakers.
Although the entire process seems extremely hostile, the documentary also stresses its importance, as these camps are seen as a last resort by the parents who are worried for their children’s mental health and future.
“Do we agree with the way they treat? No,” Medalia told Mic – but added that the teens have serious problems as some of them consider the real world to be fake and have no friends outside of the Internet.
While the documentary mostly features the totalitarian rehabs, it also highlights the crucial fact that our increased connectedness has left us lonelier than ever. Unfortunately, this phenomenon isn’t limited to China; it stands true for everyone across the globe.
However, the methods used in these facilities are way more hostile than the ones used elsewhere in the world – including those in the U.S., where software blocking and enforcing Internet bans is more the norm. It’s also unclear if these treatments actually work.
Web Junkies was selected for Sundance Film Festival 2014 and will be officially released later this month.