Web Junkie/Facebook
A Screenshot from the 'Web Junkie' documentary Facebook page. The documentary highlights China's approach to reforming teens diagnosed with "Internet addiction" which has now been labeled as a clinical addiction. The documentary premiered at Sundance Film Festival, January 19.

'Web Junkie': Internet addiction a clinical disorder

The documentary 'Web Junkie' highlights China's handling of children diagnosed as 'Internet addicted' through what seem like boot-camp rehabilitation programs. But the issues surrounding the newest clinical disorder highlights attributes of loneliness in children that are not new at all.

Judging by the just-released documentary Web Junkie, about a Chinese “Internet addiction” treatment center, it’s loneliness that’s at the heart of what the Chinese officially call a clinical disorder (more often called “problematic Internet use” in the West).

If you can get past the boot-camp-like conditions and young patients’ (inmates’?) tears, you’ll get to a scene – at 4:50 into the 7-min. trailer – that’s just as dramatic but in a different way. The psychiatrist who runs the treatment center, Prof. Tao Ran, who is also a military officer, is talking to patients’ parents, who are encouraged to stay at the center and participate in their children’s treatment.

“One of the biggest issues among these kids is loneliness,” he tells the parents. “Did you know they feel lonely? So where do they look for companions? The Internet. They know the Internet inside and out, but nothing about human beings.”

I was struck by this statement. The treatment explicitly refers to “Internet addiction,” but what it appears to be addressing – based on the patients’ interviews, the footage from "World of Warcraft" and video of kids playing multiplayer online games in Chinese Internet cafes – is much more specific: so-called gaming addiction.

So much of the experience of multiplayer games is interactive and collaborative. It could well be seen as an antidote for loneliness. In saying that these young gamers know “nothing about human beings,” perhaps the professor is saying they know “nothing about human beings” in offline life and relationships because there’s some sort of deficit there.

No siblings, fearful parents

As the film progresses, online magazine Motherboard reports, “we slowly see the value of the treatment as it rebuilds family relationships.” And there’s an important cultural reference that offers context: “The teenagers don’t have any siblings. One boy suggests that it’s [China's] 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.” Prof. Tao says to the parents: “Criticizing, accusing and blaming. You think these are the best ways to make them change, reflect and make progress?”

Many Westerners will find the documentary disturbing, but – as the Motherboard article points out – it’s not about a particular culture. There are some universals. Writer Whitney Mallett interviewed the film’s creators, Israeli filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia, about their premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, and they told of a question from an American mother in the Q&A after the screening: She “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 part of your life – unlike heroin, where you can and should live without it. Here it’s like, how do you moderate it?”

How much is technology the problem?

They have a point. But it’s probably a little bit easier if we’re very clear and specific on what it is that’s difficult to moderate – e.g., multiplayer game play rather than all Internet use as a whole – and what the compulsive use of it is compensating for. Besides loneliness or a deeper sense of connection in offline life, it could also be disengagement or boredom at school.

The opposites of those conditions are found in multiplayer online games. Here’s how author and game designer Jane McGonigal describes the experience in her 2010 TED Talk:

“There are lots and lots of characters willing to trust you with a world-saving mission, a mission perfectly matched to your current level in the game, though challenging you on the edge of your capability. You have hundreds of thousands of potential collaborators at your fingertips and an inspiring epic story urging you on, with constant feedback and support from peers. You are on the verge of an epic win all the time.”

She added that, “in game worlds, we become the best version of ourselves,” whereas in the real world, “we face obstacles, we feel anxious, overwhelmed, frustrated, cynical.”

I think these filmmakers captured something important for parents and mental health practitioners alike: that although this “addiction” seems new because it involves technology, it’s actually as old as our need for connection, mastery, and play.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Anne Collier blogs at NetFamilyNews.

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