It’s still dark outside. A Chinese man in military fatigues bursts into room after room along a narrow corridor. The drab setting looks like a military barracks and the rooms are Spartan, consisting of two bunk beds, a window, and nothing more. Young children, who can’t be older than sixteen, struggle to rise and shine. For these boys, the man leans in and shines a flickering red light in their faces.
FALL IN AFTER ONE MINUTE!
The boys are now assembled outside. They march in line in the freezing winter like miniature soldiers. The camera homes in on a young boy peering out the window, his face faintly visible through its steel security bars. He’s weeping uncontrollably. Inside his room, three women in white lab coats try to console him. “Don’t cry,” they say. He’s inconsolable. “I’m in a lot of pain,” he says, tears streaming down his face. “Bring him the medicine,” orders one of the lab-coated women.
“What did you do?” a man asks the boy. “I used the Internet,” the boy replies. He’s barely able to summon the words. “My Dad brought me here to see the doctor. But he locked me in here instead.” Tears stream down his face. “They tied my hands.”
Welcome to the Internet Addiction Treatment Center in Daxing, a suburb of Beijing, China. Established in 2004, its aim is to deprogram Chinese teenagers—mostly boys—who suffer from an “Internet addiction.” China was one of the first countries to brand “Internet addiction” as a clinical disorder, and to claim it’s the number one threat to its teenagers today. The Chinese government has erected 400 rehabilitation boot camps like this one to treat Internet addiction disorder. While the most recent edition (PDF) of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) hasn’t yet recognized it as a formal disorder, describing “Internet Gaming Disorder” as “a condition warranting more clinical research and experience before it might be considered for inclusion,” the United States began its first inpatient Internet addiction program last September in Pennsylvania.
The spellbinding documentary Web Junkie takes us inside the doors of the Internet Addiction Treatment Center in Daxing—a bizarre hybrid of military barracks and mental hospital. Directed by Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia, and executive produced by Eve Ensler and Morgan Spurlock, the film debuted at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
It cuts back to the boys, who are now running in line. They stop and, in straight lines, practice punch and kick moves in unison. Afterwards, they’re served dumplings, rice, and vegetables on metal trays. Every room in the facility is monitored by cameras, like the prison in Oldboy. Teens spend a minimum of three months at Daxing. While they’re there, they’ll be subjected to a variety of tasks. Wires and nodes will be hooked to their head to measure brain activity (it’s a 20-minute process), they’re administered daily medication (without being told what it is), they have to keep their rooms spotless, partake in individual and group therapy sessions with their parents, and do boot camp-style exercise, with jumping jacks and push-ups. Sometimes, they’re forced to line up and sit in a straight-backed crouching position for half an hour. They sing the following song:
Following orders is an obligation! We must remember the rules and regulations! We should follow orders and not violate them! We will gather into the group for the battle! Oh, discipline, discipline, I will always keep my discipline! You will always keep the discipline! Discipline is crucial for the effectiveness of the battle!
Most of the kids don’t even know how they got here.
“Some kids were drugged, others were tricked into coming here,” says one of the kids. “Usually, it’s the parents [who drugged them]. Sometimes, the Center will send staff to do it. One kid was sleeping. Seven or eight drillmasters carried him here. When he woke up, he was at the Camp. Many students got here like that.”
“My parents tricked me,” adds Nicky, a 16-year-old. “They told me we were going skiing in Russia.”
The majority of the kids at Daxing do spend way too much time on the Internet. Nicky played the online computer game World of Warcraft for ten hours a day. One kid in the film claims to have played World of Warcraft for 300 hours straight, taking only tiny naps in between. “Only fifteen days?” another kid replies. “During summer vacation, I played for two whole months.” Another boy admits to spending over $8,500 playing a game called Dream to the West. Most of the kids at Daxing have been suspended from school at one point due to their constant gaming, while some have dropped out entirely.
“We noticed from these children that they have a bias towards virtual reality,” says Prof. Tao Ran, an addiction specialist and director of Daxing Camp. “They think that the real world is not as good as the virtual world.”
He adds, “Some kids are so hooked on these games they think going to the bathroom will affect their performance. So they wear a diaper. These are the same as heroin addicts. Heroin addicts crave and look for heroin every day. The teenagers we have here crave and look forward to playing games online every day. That’s why we call it electronic heroin.”
The kids of Daxing don’t believe they have a problem, and eventually start to break down. When Hope, a 16-year-old in the camp, flips out one day, he’s ordered to 10-day isolation where he’s locked in a room by himself and, at times, tied to his bed. He’s not allowed to speak with anyone. There’s another poignant scene midway through the film when the aforementioned Nicky is seen desperately phoning his parents, trying to convince them to remove him from the camp.
“What can I say to make you trust me?!” he yells. He hangs up the phone, and motions to a nearby nurse. “Doctor, may I smash the window?” he says. “Let’s go to the ‘venting room’,” she replies.
These kids are lonely and the Internet is a way for them to escape. Their parents, it seems, are too wrapped up in work to spend any time on their children. There is no communication.
“First, I think kids today feel lonely because they’re the only child in the family,” a parent later admits, citing China’s one-child policy. “Second, as parents, we fail to make friends with our own child. We only ask them to study hard. Their stress, their worries, their pain—we can’t see any of it.”
Sometimes, the parents are abusive—including the father of a 15-year-old in the camp who goes by the name of “Hacker.” After the child is sent to the drillmasters office for saying, “fuck,” his father is called in for a talk.
“I am very rough with him,” his father says. “I beat him. There was a period of time I was very irritable. I tried to stab him with a knife. At that time, my intention was to frighten him. I didn’t really want to stab him.”
Almost all the parents seem completely disconnected from their children, showing little to no interest in their thoughts and desires. They rarely talk. “It’s worse than talking to a stranger,” a father says at one point.
During a family therapy session, Nicky confronts his father.
“Think about it… why did I play online?” he asks. “You think it’s all my fault that I played online? At home, I feel I don’t exist. I feel neither of you care about me. On the Internet I have friends who care about me. I can’t think of a single time we didn’t fight.” His father says he’s ungrateful. “If you want me to die, I’ll do it right away,” yells Nicky. “I can return my life to you. Do you need it?” Moments later, Nicky grabs a metal stool and screams at his father, “Do you want to die?” Nurses restrain him. His father breaks down, sobbing.
Nicky collects himself, and says, “When I’m lonely, I talk to a little bear, which is my toy. Or I talk to the computer. I don’t think my friends online are fictitious. They are also human beings. Also, another lonely person who sits on the other side of the computer. We care about each other.”
Daxing claims to have a 70 percent success rate in “curing” kids of “Internet addiction.” But, in Web Junkie, it seems as if any success the prison has is due to the level of trauma inflicted on the impressionable young boys (and a few girls).
“I’ll be the same as I was before,” Hope says to a friend in the camp on the day of his release. Then, he goes and meets with nurses and his father in group therapy. He apologizes to his father and says he’s changed. He’ll be nicer to his father, and respect him more. The nurse then forces him to stand up, kneel down before his father, and address him as “father” thirty times in a row.