‘Internet addiction': New ‘disorder’ about age-old needs?

Judging by the just-released documentary Web Junkie, about a Chinese “Internet addiction” treatment center, it’s loneliness that’s at the heart of what the Chinese officially call a clinical disorder (more often called “problematic Internet use” in the West).

If you can get past the boot-camp-like conditions and young patients’ (inmates’?) tears, you’ll get to a scene – at 4:50 into the 7-min. trailer – that’s just as dramatic but in a different way. The psychiatrist who runs the treatment center, Prof. Tao Ran, who is also a military officer, is talking to patients’ parents, who are encouraged to stay at the center and participate in their children’s treatment.

“One of the biggest issues among these kids is loneliness,” he tells the parents. “Did you know they feel lonely? So where do they look for companions? The Internet. They know the Internet inside and out, but nothing about human beings.” I was struck by this statement. The treatment explicitly refers to “Internet addiction,” but what it appears to be addressing – based on the patients’ interviews, the footage from World of Warcraft and video of kids playing multiplayer online games in Chinese Internet cafes – is much more specific: so-called gaming addiction. So much of the experience of multiplayer games is interactive and collaborative. It could well be seen as an antidote for loneliness. In saying that these young gamers know “nothing about human beings,” perhaps the professor is saying they know “nothing about human beings” in offline life and relationships because there’s some sort of deficit there.

No siblings, fearful parents

As the film progresses, online magazine Motherboard reports, “we slowly see the value of the treatment as it rebuilds family relationships.” And there’s an important cultural reference that offers context: “The teenagers don’t have any siblings. One boy suggests that it’s [China’s] one-child policy that makes them lonely in the first place and drives them to the MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) they compulsively play.” Prof. Tao says to the parents: “Criticizing, accusing and blaming. You think these are the best ways to make them change, reflect and make progress?”

Many Westerners will find the documentary disturbing, but – as the Motherboard article points out – it’s not about a particular culture. There are some universals. Writer Whitney Mallett interviewed the film’s creators, Israeli filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia, about their premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last week, and they told of a question from an American mother in the Q&A after the screening: She “told us she has a 20-year-old who is addicted to internet games and has been going in and out of rehab, and every time he will go through a program, when he comes back home, again the problem arises because the internet is such an integral part of your life—unlike heroin, where you can and should live without it. Here it’s like, how do you moderate it?”

How much is technology the problem?

They have a point. But it’s probably a little bit easier if we’re very clear and specific on what it is that’s difficult to moderate – e.g., multiplayer game play rather than all Internet use as a whole – and what the compulsive use of it is compensating for. Besides loneliness or a deeper sense of connection in offline life, it could also be disengagement or boredom at school. The opposites of those conditions are sometimes found in multiplayer online games. Here’s how author and game designer Jane McGonigal describes the experience in her 2010 TED Talk:

“There are lots and lots of characters willing to trust you with a world-saving mission, a mission perfectly matched to your current level in the game, though challenging you on the edge of your capability. You have hundreds of thousands of potential collaborators at your fingertips and an inspiring epic story urging you on, with constant feedback and support from peers. You are on the verge of an epic win all the time.” This doesn’t perfectly fit the definition for “addiction,” but the words “compelling” and “meaningful” come to mind. McGonigal added that, “in game worlds, we become the best version of ourselves,” whereas in the real world, “we face obstacles, we feel anxious, overwhelmed, frustrated, cynical.” Does boot camp fix that?

I think these Israeli filmmakers captured something important for parents and mental health practitioners alike: that although this “addiction” seems new because it involves technology, it’s actually as old as our need for connection, mastery and play.

Related links

  • A big “hear, hear!” for Amy Jussel at ShapingYouth.com, who wrote earlier this month, “As CNN cites research stats on depression, ADHD linkage and a wide range of adolescents afflicted with internet addiction (1.4%-17.9%), I’m still struggling to define what the term even MEANS without proper context!” Amy, my favorite media literacy expert, just published a two-parter on “Agency vs. addiction.” I linked to Part 2 just above. Here‘s Part 1.
  • About McGonigal’s talk, where she suggests that – in order to be as compelling as games – real-world problem solving needs four things that games provide for: “urgent optimism” (the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle believing we have a reasonable hope of success); “a tight social fabric” (online games build bonds, trust, cooperation, stronger social relations and community); “blissful productivity” (“the average WoW gamer plays 22 hours/week,” she said, “we are optimized as human beings when doing hard, meaningful work”); and 
“epic meaning” (gamers love to be attached to “awe-inspiring missions and planetary-scale stories”).
  • China was the first country to make “Internet addiction” an official disorder, The Guardian reported, whereas it’s usually called “problematic Internet behavior” in the West. It seems that Chinese psychiatry doesn’t make distinctions between various kinds of Internet activities. “In China they define an [Internet] addict as someone who uses the internet more than six hours for things that are not work or study related. In the west, the definition is examined by behavior,” Motherboard reports. According to Wikipedia, “the China Communist Youth League claimed in 2007 that over 17% of Chinese citizens between 13 and 17 were addicted to the Internet.”
  • “Balancing external with internal Internet safety ‘tools'”
  • My 2012 post “Puzzling over ‘Internet addiction'”
  • Back in 2008, I posted an interview with American psychiatrist Jerald Block about “Internet addition.”

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