They call it “electronic heroin,” and China feels it’s the biggest threat to its teenagers.
In 2008, China, which has over 20 million Internet addicts, became one of the first countries to declare the affliction a clinical disorder. Internet addiction has spawned the creation of over 250 camps within China designed to treat addicted youth.
The addiction problem, and China's attempts to treat it, has attracted the attention of Israeli filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia, who released the documentary Web Junkie earlier this month.
According to the 2008 report that defined the disorder, people who spend more than six hours online doing something other than work or study, and who feel bad when unable to access a computer, have what they call Internet Addiction Disorder.
Gaming appears to be the most addictive Internet behavior, with some gamers donning diapers so as to avoid bathroom breaks.
The trend has Chinese parents worried.
“I think China and especially Chinese parents take education very seriously,” said Eric Harwit, professor of Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii. “They saw a lot of teenagers, especially young male students, start to lose interest in school and devote much of their time to Internet gaming.”
Harwit said the parents of Internet-addicted youth are desperate to cure their offspring. Some even resort to drugging their kids to take them to the camps.
“They look to [the camps] as a kind of last resort for reforming their children, especially if it’s one child, the only child that they have, and giving them a chance to break their addiction to Internet games and hopefully then return to school and become more academically capable,” he said.
The military-style camps are situated throughout China, and are designed to force the country’s youth away from obsessive Internet surfing and video gaming. Typically, kids can spend three to four months at a camp receiving treatment.
Filmmakers Shlam and Hilla Medalia were granted access to the Daxing Boot Camp in Beijing, the first Internet addiction camp, which opened in 2005.
“Most of the kids were forced to come there, they didn’t know where they were going,” said Hilla Medalia, co-director of Web Junkie. “Some of them were drugged, one of our kids thought he was going skiing and found himself behind bars at the center.”
Once there, the patients are required to participate in rigorous exercises, medication and therapy. Sometimes patients are also placed in isolation for as long as 10 days. The living conditions are Spartan, according to Medalia.
“There are no showers, and they wake up very early in the morning, it’s like a boot camp in many ways and they’re doing military training,” she said. “In the winter it’s extremely cold in Beijing, and in the summer it’s extremely hot.”
But Medalia said camp officials believe the harsh conditions provide a discipline that the patients need. The center encourages parents to stay at the camps, and families often participate in consultations with authorities there. The Daxing treatment center claimed 70 percent success in helping patients overcome Internet addiction. It has since closed, but relocated to another facility not connected to the military.
But some of the disciplinary measures at the camps have become overly harsh, and deaths have been reported. According to a 2012 Xinhua story, “instructors who resort to violence while treating addicts at Internet addiction rehabilitation centers will be disqualified from continuing their job.”
That same report said that in 2010 two camp instructors beat a 15-year-old to death. The two received “up to” 10 years in prison, according to the report.
And the deaths continue.
In June, a 19-year-old girl died after being repeatedly dropped on the ground by instructors at a camp in Henan province. Another girl apparently died after being forced to do extreme exercises on a cold floor for two hours.
The true test of the camps’ success comes when the participants leave the camps and return to their homes or schools where the Internet is always waiting.
“Once they return to society, they’re not supposed to then play games, but they still have to use the Internet,” said Harwit, noting that much academic research is now done online. “How do you say this part of the Internet is good, but this part you should avoid?”
China is not the only country grappling with Internet addiction.
The New York Times reported that “up to 30 percent of South Koreans under 18, or about 2.4 million people, are at risk of Internet addiction.” South Korea also has opened well over 100 rehabilitation centers for those suffering from addiction.
Here's a peak inside a Chinese Internet addiction camp:
Here's the trailer for the movie: