OW doc reveals tough conditions at one of China’s 400 internet addiction centres

'Web Junkies', photo: archive of One World

Web Junkies, currently screening at the One World festival of human rights documentaries in Prague, is a startling portrait of how China deals with teens hooked on online games. Indeed, it was the first country to classify internet addiction as a clinical disorder and has set up 400 treatment centres.

'Web Junkies',  photo: archive of One World
The one in Web Addiction, overseen by a Professor Tao, is a boot camp inside a military base and conditions are tough to say the least. I spoke to director Shosh Shlam and asked her if there were particular reasons the problem is so acute in China.

“The One Child policy is one of the reasons and the other reason is the very strict, competitive education system. These two are causing the phenomenon to be so extreme.”

Several of the methods of treatment seemed to me to be quite extreme. Were there any that particularly surprised you?

“It surprised me that the children were tricked into coming in…”

By their parents.

“By their parents – they don’t do it voluntarily. I was surprised to see that they are behind bars. Military discipline I know from my country, Israel, so this is not new for me.

“Strict discipline, according to Professor Tao, will develop their responsibility and create boundaries. So I was surprised by this, and I was surprised by in a way the brainwashing…”

They have to sing songs like “We are the pride of our nation”.

“Yeah, this is very Chinese. They are very patriotic.”

Did you get a sense that this harsh, militaristic treatment can be effective?

“To tell you the truth, I don’t know. It creates boundaries. These children have lost boundaries, but they are not the only ones to blame – there are parents behind them.

Shosh Shlam,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“The children that you see have left reality, they’ve dropped out of school. They’re spending days and nights wearing a diaper in an internet cafe…”

Because they’re afraid if they go to the toilet they won’t win the game?

“That’s right. In a way they are disconnected from reality – they’ve given up reality. And they’re talking in new terms, about living in reality and living in the virtual world. These are new terms that characterise the era that we live in.”

Do you think that what we see in your film in China can happen elsewhere, with these kids basically spending day and night playing games and letting their lives go to hell?

“Yes, absolutely. I mean, China is a mirror to the Western world. It happens in the US, it happens in Europe, it happens in Israel. In the US, 65 percent of boys are addicted to porn and video games, so it’s not only China.

“China took a step [in creating treatment centres] because the regime is different. But it’s a mirror. And because the phenomenon is universal, I went to make this film.”