Reviewed by Hannah Lau
Directed by Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam, Shlam Productions
Israel, China, 2013, 75 minutes
Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles
Daxing Bootcamp, located in the suburbs of Beijing, is probably a place you've never heard of. But growing numbers of parents in China who are at wits’ end have heard of it or of the 400 rehabilitation camps like it. The government has set up the centers to treat teenagers with internet addiction disorder. Internet addiction in China is defined as “spending more than six hours a day on the internet for non-work or -study purposes.”
China is the first country to declare internet addiction as a clinical disorder claiming it is the number one public health threat to its teenage population.
Calling it a bootcamp is no misnomer. The admitted young men (and a few young women) rise early, have scheduled exercises, meals, chores, classes, and therapy sessions. Those who are disobedient to the rules are punished with chores or worse, put in isolation. Those who wind up here have been dragged, tricked, or even drugged into the rehabilitation center, usually by their parents. At first glance, it seems harsh, or even an overreaction, that teenagers who play videogames are subjected to such treatment. After all, aren’t the teenage years bad enough as it is?
In the documentary, Web Junkie, Israeli filmmakers, Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam, take us inside the rehabilitation camp, offering us a candid but balanced view by following the stories of three young men. Like most people who have been involuntarily admitted into a rehabilitation center, none of the young people at the camp believe they have a problem. To them, there is nothing wrong with ignoring the real world simply because “the real world is not as good as the virtual world.” To them there is nothing wrong with gaming nonstop for 40 days straight, without showering, talking to anyone, eating or sleeping, as one mother shared of her son’s behavior. Some even wear diapers to avoid having to take bathroom breaks. Frustrated parents also note their children’s behavior to be increasingly hostile, moody, and violent. Faced with no other choice, they send their children for professional help.
Professor Tao Ran, an addiction specialist, and the director of the Daxing Bootcamp, refers to the internet as “electronic heroin” to these young people. Some of these young men are seen in tears as they suffer from withdrawal and are forced to stay in the camp. Because of the nature of the condition, Professor Tao believes in running the camp as both a hospital and a school. Each patient has a therapist and their parents have therapists as well. Counseling takes place individually and then together with family members. Uncharacteristic of traditional Chinese culture, sessions encourage children and parents to express feelings openly.
The other side of the story
The other side of the story in this case, is that of the parents. It’s no news that China is suffering from the breakdown of the family unit. Parents are busy with their jobs, spending little time at home, let alone with their children. Growing middle-class incomes allow for parents to compensate for their absences with gadgets and toys. When their children have spiraled out of control, they hope that sending them to the camp will solve the problem. Many of the parents need to be forced by therapists to participate in their portion of the rehabilitation process. They fail to recognize that the neglect of their children began long before the onset of internet addiction.
It comes from something that is broken. You never know what came first—the bad relationship in the family caused the escape to the internet, or the internet caused the bad relationship. The chicken or the egg? – Shosh Shlam, Director
One of the young men in the camp, 16 years of age, is named Hope (希望 – Xi Wang) and yet it is because of the exact opposite that he finds himself in this rehabilitation center. Another young man has failed at two attempts to commit suicide because of online gaming. Others share openly that their parents don’t care to spend time with them and only demand that they study hard and behave well. The relationship between parent and child has been broken. One of the therapists said, “distrust is the root of despair, where there is no trust, there is no respect.”
Despair (绝望 – jue wang) is the real issue at play. Young people are turning to the internet because they see no other answer to their despair. They’re not fighting internet addiction, they’re fighting meaninglessness in their lives. The Daxing Bootcamp may have been set up to rehabilitate those with internet addiction, but what it’s really doing, is restoring families.
As parents, as Christians in society, and even as the church, what is our role? Perhaps it’s time to (temporarily) suspend grandiose ideas of the next generation changing the world and get back to the basics—to help young people live with purpose, meaning, and an appreciation for healthy human relationships.
Hannah Lau is a marketing consultant for ChinaSource, managing external communication and marketing processes including social media. Originally from Canada, Hannah served for a time in China where she began her career in advertising. A few years ago she left the corporate sector and took her skills to the non-profit... View Full Bio