This piece originally was published in July 2015 for Healthline Contributors, which no longer is live. Reprinted here with permission.
By David Heitz
Show of hands … how many of you are concerned that your child spends way too much time on the Internet?
How many of you are concerned about it enough that you would send them off to a militaristic reform camp to straighten them out and force them to become more social?
No? What if they skipped school to play on the Internet?
What? You say you suspect that has happened in your home maybe once, maybe twice? Maybe more than twice?
In the documentary “Web Junkie,” to air on “POV” (“Point of View”) Monday, July 13 (check your local listings) on PBS, Israeli filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia give us a look inside one such reform camp in China. Parents representing China’s growing middle class spend the equivalent of two years’ earnings to place their children in the camp for an average of three months.
Shlam and Medalia spent four years filming at the camp, located in a Beijing suburb. The camp’s director, Professor Tao Ran, a psychiatrist, gave them unprecedented access. Shlam and Medalia showed just how Tao and his staff attempt to de-program
Chinese children who play Internet games for hours, days, even weeks on end, sometimes even wearing diapers while they do so so they don’t have to pause the games to go to the bathroom.
I spoke with Shlam and Medalia on the telephone about their experience inside the camp. While they acknowledge some in the Western world may be quick to cry out that such camps are yet another example of human rights violations by China, they are upfront about the fact that they don’t see it that way.
“I don’t think it’s so important whether you make a decision between using the Internet for gaming or another (use); it affects your social skills,” Shosh said. “The children that you saw in the film are very lonely.” Professor Tao explains that “the part of your brain that is responsible for social skills is being damaged a lot (by the Internet). If you don’t use it, you lose it. You lose your social skills, too.”
Mentally Ill Because of Too Much Internet?
China isn’t the first country in the world to classify Internet addiction as a clinical disorder. If you find that shocking, here’s something you may find even more shocking: Internet addiction, specifically Internet gaming addiction, was added to the appendix in 2013 of DSM-5. DSM stands for The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and it is the Bible of American psychiatry.
An editorial two years ago in the medical journal Addiction explains how Internet gaming dependence came to be added to the appendix, along with gambling addiction. The editorial calls for more research to be conducted about Internet gaming addiction.
In the film, it’s easy to see how Chinese children in particular become so addicted to gaming. Until last year, China had a restriction that couples could only bear one child due to the country’s burgeoning population. Only children sometimes make for lonely children.
Second, with China’s longstanding emphasis on academic rigor, the idea of a child skipping school is heresy no matter what the reason, let alone to play games on the Internet.
“And if they go to school, they are surrounded by other kids,” Shosh pointed out. “They drop out of school. They stop functioning. Parents bring the kids to the center because they don’t know what else to do.”
Some parents admit to actually drugging their children so that they can peel them away from the computer and transport them to the center.
“If you put a child behind bars against their will, it’s harsh,” Shosh said. “When you put a child through discipline they’re not used to, it’s harsh. On the other hand, if this is your last chance as a parent …”
Human Rights Violation or Parents’ Rights?
“You can say it’s a human rights violations, as some journalists do,” Shosh said. “And you can also say it’s the last chance for these children.”
Tao claims a 70 percent success rate at reforming the kids. In the film, the children appear to be brainwashed into thinking that Internet gaming is a horrible thing. They also are forced into respecting their parents. One child is told to say to his father, “I love you” 30 times.
But away from their parents, the filmmakers show the children joking amongst themselves about what goes on at the camp. “It’s easy to say ‘I love you’ 1,000 times,” one child quips. “It’s called, ‘Control C, Control V,’” as the children squeal with laughter.
Another child breaks out in song, in English, singing Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone.”
Shosh said socially inept children are not unique to China. “In Israel, there are teens who will not even look into your eyes. Our children are losing their emotional intelligence.”
She believes these Chinese reform camps are trying to help children, and it could be a model that other nations soon will follow. “You can relate to the fear of the Chinese government seeing the power of the Internet. Of course they are afraid of the Internet and all of the social media. But no doubt, China is the only country in the world that tries to face the problem at a national level.”
But when the teens do give in and admit they have an Internet addiction, are they telling the truth or just trying to get out of the camps?
“It’s hard to tell,” Shosh said. “When you are dealing with the souls of people, you cannot tell if they’re pretending or not. We hope that the 70 percent success rate they are claiming is true.”
Watch the trailer for “Web Junkie” by clicking here.