Inside China’s ‘web junkie’ bootcamps

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Facebook has some 70 million users in Brazil, its third biggest market after the United States and India.

Beijing - Chinese authorities have created military-run bootcamps to wean teenage Internet “junkies” off their online addiction - and a new documentary opens the door on what goes on inside.

With 24 million young people spending more than six hours a day online, China is the first country in the world to recognise Web dependency as a medical condition, according to Web Junkie, in competition at the Sundance Film Festival.

Filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia gained access to one of some 400 Chinese detox centres for adolescents aged 13-18 considered as addicted, notably to online videogames.

“China is the first country to declare Internet addiction as a clinical disorder and to take action,” Medalia told AFP.

Their film focuses on three children sent by their parents to the centre.

For a month, the three boys - no girls were interviewed for the documentary -- alternate military obstacle courses, medical treatment and family therapy, at a cost of 10 000 yuan (about R16 000), twice the average monthly salary in Beijing.

“These parents are really desperate. They bring their kids there because it's their last resort, they really want to help them,” said Medalia. “People have to pay a lot of money for it, it's not subsidised by the government.

“They borrow money from family and friends.”

The documentary doesn't go into all the details of treatment at the centre - there are bizarre scenes of patients with heads covered in a helmet of wires, in theory to monitor their brain activity - although it does show how desperate the teenagers get when deprived of an online fix.

One is shown begging his parents to let him out, vowing in exchange to play “for only four hours a day online.” Another boasts of having once played for 300 hours straight, barring a few short naps.

Shlam said she was not convinced that all of them are really addicted. Although some probably are.

“Is it an addiction or a social phenomenon? They don't think they have an addiction. But which addict will admit that he is an addict?” she asked.

“I think that you can call it addiction when you don't function in your own life. The children are dropping out from school, they're going to the Internet cafes day and night, they put a diaper on, not to miss one minute of the game.”

Shlam pointed to two main reasons for the Chinese phenomenon: the country's long-standing one-child policy and a “very strict and competitive” education system.

“Because there is one child and the future of his family is on his shoulders, the parents are pushing and pushing them to be a better student,” creating intense pressures from which they seek to escape, she said.

Even those running the camps admit that the “cure” they offer is only temporary.

Whereas it's possible to keep a drug addict from getting heroin, “How do you manage it, because we are so dependent on the Internet for the work and for communication?” asked Medalia.

The main indicator of success is probably whether the teenagers can return to some kind of normal social life. For a month, they are helped to re-learn how to talk face-to-face with their peers, and not via the Internet.

“That's what one of the children said in the film: 'When I feel lonely, I go to the Internet and I find another lonely person on the other side,'“ said Shlam. - AFP

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