Movie review

Gamers do hard time in documentary


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"Web Junkie" (3stars) is a dark journey into the world of compulsive online game playing among teens and the way that China is trying to treat it. It's hard to say which is more disturbing.

The documentary by Israeli directors Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia will be screened here Saturday as part of Faces of Work -- the 2014 Carnegie Mellon International Film Festival. Ms. Shlam will attend the screening.

In China, the global problem of Internet addiction is classified as a clinical disorder and is considered the No. 1 public health threat to teens. To combat the problem, there are hundreds of rehab "camps" where kids who have out-of-control game-playing habits are confined for treatment.

"Web Junkie" was filmed at a rehab center in Daxing, a suburb of Beijing. The kids, who are between 13 and 18, spend three or four months there.

The treatment center looks like a cross between a prison and a military barracks. Residents share crowded quarters with bunk beds. Their living quarters are enclosed by bars and gates. They're monitored on security cameras and staff members listen to their phone conversations with their families.

Their days are filled with military discipline -- exercising, marching, cleaning their rooms under the direction of drill masters -- and of course, no Internet access. As one inmate puts it, they "destroy old beliefs and make new ones for us," the way religious cult members are deprogrammed.

A few are clearly troubled. Some didn't stop to sleep or eat or bathe while online, because they didn't want to stop at a crucial level in the game or impact their performance. One boy boasts to his peers that he played "World of Warcraft" for 15 days straight -- with occasional nap breaks. Most have been suspended or have dropped out of school. Some threaten suicide or violence.

Anxiety, stress and depression are common. They indulge in other kinds of addictive behaviors, such as smoking cigarettes -- as do several adults in the film.

There are heart-rending segments in "Web Junkie": a boy standing at a window crying, another on a telephone begging his parents to let him go back home.

When some teens escape from the center and head straight for -- of course -- an Internet cafe, they are quickly captured and returned to the rehab facility. The ringleader is forced to spend 10 days in isolation for punishment.

"Web Junkie" takes no sides. Rather, it aims to define the problem from the point of view of everyone involved.

The viewer sees the colorful lure of the virtual world through the kids' eyes. "It's not a disease. It's a phenomenon," one of them says. They say it's a way for them to excel at something and to meet new friends online.

The filmmakers were given a high level of access to the kids, the staff and their families during the four months they spent at the center. There are emotionally charged family therapy sessions in which the kids and their problems are seen in the context of their home lives -- parents who emphasize high scholastic achievement but who are absent or abusive. At the same time, the parents are desperate and unable to deal with their children and find the rehab camps to be their only option. There are the harsh drill masters, but there are also medical staff who try to restore the severed connection between parents and kids and lead them back to the real world.

Is Internet addiction an illness, a behavior disorder or a massive cultural shift that society has yet to fully understand? Are the Daxing center's treatment methods effective? Are these kids "cured" when they leave the rehab center? "Web Junkie" leaves the viewer with more questions than answers.

"Web Junkie" will be screened at 7:15 p.m. Saturday in McConomy Auditorium, Carnegie Mellon University, Oakland. Tickets are $8, $5 for seniors and students. Information: cmu.edu/faces.


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