Israeli auteurs see Chinese cure for web junkies

Wang “Nicky” Yuchao, a Chinese 16-year-old, thought he was going skiing in Russia with his parents. Instead, they brought him to one of some 400 rehabilitation clinics in China dedicated to treating Internet addiction disorder.

Wang spends his days confined to a repurposed army base in Daxing, just south of Beijing. The facility is stark, with cold, gray hallways and metal bars. Treatment consists of a combination of army boot camp drills, therapy sessions, board games and antidepressants. And, of course, he is given no access to Internet or gaming consoles.

A teen is treated at a Chinese rehab clinic for Internet addiction in PBS’ “Web Junkies.”

Two Israeli filmmakers, Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia, spent three months inside the rehab facility to chronicle how China treats addiction to what one therapist in the film calls “electronic heroin.” Their documentary, “Web Junkie,”  follows Nicky — who had the habit of playing “World of Warcraft” some 10 hours a day — and two other patients throughout their months-long stints at the clinic in 2010.

“Web Junkie,”  nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, premiered July 13 on the PBS series “POV.”

The documentary highlights the potential “dark side of the Internet,” as the filmmakers explain, by looking at kids who live their lives online — to the exclusion of all else, including family, friends and school. “Some kids wear diapers as not to miss a minute of the game,” said Medalia.

The director of the Daxing facility gave the filmmakers unprecedented access to its rehab center, even insisting that they stay on the base as opposed to commuting in and out each day. Back in 2008, Shlam saw an Australian news broadcast about a Chinese youth who was beaten to death in one of the country’s treatment centers. She said the story shook her and inspired her to make the film.

It is still widely debated among psychologists whether Internet addiction is a psychological disorder that can be treated. China was the first country to list it as such in 2008; some argue it was an attempt by the Communist government to further control its citizens.

American teens are online “almost constantly,” according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center. Internet addiction is not listed as a clinical disorder in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” published by the American Psychiatric Association. Gambling is the only behavioral disorder recognized by the guide, though Internet addiction disorder was listed recently in the manual’s appendix as requiring further research.

Israel also uses the manual and does not classify Internet addiction as an official disorder. Still, a 2012 study by the World Health Organization indicated that young Israelis, ages 11 to 15, spend more time surfing the Internet than their peers anywhere else in the world. Perhaps this isn’t surprising: As part of its identity as a “startup nation,” Israel’s economy supports technological innovation, having created popular digital products like the navigation app Waze.

Geography aside, Medalia said, it remains to be seen whether the problem described in “Web Junkies” is “an addiction or a social phenomenon — and if a social phenomenon can be an addiction.”