It's not uncommon to hear someone say they're "addicted to the Internet." In China, internet addiction is actually classified as a clinical disorder. Israeli filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia set out to explore one approach to curing it at a Beijing facility that is the last hope for teens and their parents who have found their lives torn apart by an addiction to web-based video games.
The documentary Web Junkie goes inside Daxing Boot Camp, where teens typically do not come of their own accord. Their parents trick them or even drug them to get them to the facility, where treatments range from counseling to group exercises to in extreme cases -- total isolation.
The founder of Daxing is Tao Ran, a professor and psychiatrist who has named internet addiction as the most significant public health hazard in China. He was the key to getting Shlam and Medalia access to make their film, as they explained when we reached them in Tel Aviv.
The filmmakers did not even attempt to get official permission to film from the Chinese government because they knew they would not receive it. Medalia said they had to keep their filming "low key," arriving at the facility in cars with tinted windows and wearing scarves and hats to make themselves less visible.
As they worked on the project, the filmmakers started to understand why Internet addiction is such a problem for Chinese youth. Because of the one-child policy and a very strict education system, being a teenager in that country can be especially lonely. Many young people have found connections to other teens online, but in focusing so much of their social energy towards to Internet, Chinese youth are suffering a "new kind of loneliness," Shlam said.
While Web Junkie focuses specifically on one treatment facility in China, Shlam and Medalia see Internet addiction as a worldwide problem. Because we increasingly rely on online resources to work and function in society, it's difficult to ask an Internet addict to cut web access out of his or her life completely. Tao Ran claims his Daxing facility has a 70% success rate in curing teens of their addiction, though as Shlam and Medalia readily admit, it's tough to verify that number. And there's a high likelihood of relapse. As we see in Web Junkie, one teenager mounts an escape from the treatment center, but he's found very quickly...at a nearby internet cafe.
POV's Web Junkie is now streaming online for free until August 13, 2015.