Web Junkie opens without introduction; camouflage-covered, stern-faced men, and equally intimidating looking women in lab coats, marching through a bootcamp corridor. Subsequent establishing shots paint a similarly grim picture of the snowy austerity of suburban Beijing. Next, the camera hones in on one youth, who is bawling hysterically, and an off-camera voice asks ‘what did you do?’ His reply? ‘I used the internet.’
Onscreen text reveals that China is the first country to declare internet addiction a clinical disorder, and that the government ranks it as the number one public health threat to a teenage population. The place that Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia show us (with a surprising degree of access and intimacy), is one of 400 internet rehabilitation camps built by the government in recent years, where Chinese teenagers who game too much are sent for month-long spells, deprived of internet access and forced to ‘re-engage’ with the ‘real world’ through regimentation, exercise and counselling. As one subject, who is addressed by his online handle ‘Hope’, points out, when you spend as much time in virtual worlds as the real one, reality becomes a contestable concept. “It seems you have failed to address reality” a nurse tells him. Without expression or intonation, he rebukes her with “what is reality?”
Shlam and Medalia have evidently spent a lot of time with these kids, as the well selected moments chosen in this pleasingly concise, seventy five minute documentary build a vivid picture of each child in focus. All are palpably conflicted, and many very troubled. One moment, they’re prankish, funny and jubilant, as children are expected to be; the next they’re describing considering jumping out of a window after being forced to quit mid game. “Sometimes I think there is nothing worth living for.”
One scene sees one kid boasting about having played 300 hours of World of Warcraft without real rest, who is then one upped by another announcing he once clocked two straight months during one vacation, maniacally laughing with warped pride. In China, the kids aren’t alright. As an affliction, internet addiction seems like something everyone is prone to, but Web Junkies makes it clear that this is a modern malaise above and beyond feeling the compulsion to check social media three times on the hour.
“If you’re watching this film and think you have problems, please come to the psychological centre of Beijing Military Hospital” beckons one child, somewhat derisively. “Life here is really beautiful.” From this, each child in the room competes to make the most outlandishly exaggerated statement on camera, delivered with the straightest face. The winner declares “after you come here, you don’t want to leave,” followed by fits of laughter. Beyond the bravado though, their is an awareness of their problems. A particularly humbling filmed chat sees the boys discussing online romance. Online “it is very easy to say ‘i love you one thousand times” one of them declares. “Ctrl C plus Ctrl V, 1000 times.” The irony is, though they all can’t wait to escape the camp, it may be the place where they have made their best offline connections.
Yet, despite any friends made, Shlam and Medalia make it evident that this is not a place anyone would want to be. ‘It should be called teenage mental destroy centre’ says one child, and like any good prison flick, theres an escape sequence (or at least the aftermath of one). The punishment for the ringleader is quite shocking, 10 days isolation. The exasperation in his eyes as he beg to go back home following his return to company is palpable. Still, it remains possible to question whether this reveals the state of the camp, or their unflappable, unflinching desire to get back online?
The most affecting sequences in the film are where Shiam and Medalia get to sit in on the parent and child counselling session. where the parents, evidently unburdened, express the anguish their children’s addiction has had, and the guilt it causes them. One of the counselling sessions sees one of the more extreme cases stand in front of his father and call him dad 100 times. The image of a clearly disengaged child muttering ‘baba’ monotonously, would be amusing if it weren’t so unsettling. The responses of the children, though often dramatic. are similarly moving. Another desperate boy, wails at the point of exasperation, “tomorrow, hold my ashes and cry.” Its too simple to diagnose their affliction as a result of neglect or alienation, but many do seem to just want somewhere to belong.
These seem a much more effective way to address the problems than the lectures both parent and child are subjected to. The dictatorial, out of touch owner of the camp, Professor Tao, is shown talking about how online games are ‘electronic heroin’ before carrying a chant about China’s strength and the importance of discipline and conformity. It is here that the camp’s role as societal microcosm becomes obvious, but also here that this idea is left. Whilst mostly intimate in focus, this chant speaks of a greater China outside of the camps. Little is made of the idea that, though heavily censored, the online world of China might offer more freedom than the real one. The director’s standoffish approach means any questions raised come mostly from the viewer, rather than their representation. Web Junkies perhaps would have been more intriguing had they dared to look slightly broader, and explored the problems China has that might be greater than internet addiction.