What is Internet Addiction?

The 2013 documentary Web Junkie highlights one of – if not the – most striking problems among Chinese teens: internet addiction. Home to over 400 “rehab” camps for internet-addicted teens, China ranks highest among nations for internet addiction prevalence with reports of 42% of young netizens feeling addicted to the internet (Dubois).

The film captures many elements of this compulsion; trust, despair, and the search for control. When the kids apologize to their parents and admit their obsession with gaming, do the kids actually realize their “addiction” and want to change themselves, or have they just realized the more strategic approach of showing the camp counselors what they’re looking for in order to get out sooner?

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What resonated with me most was a scene when one of the students explains his need to give in to the internet: “the real world is not as good as virtual reality.” He explains that his addiction to this ‘electronic heroin’ comes largely from his own incompetence from doing well in school, and that gaming reminds him that “at least [he is] better than others in one thing.” This reminds me of Gareth White’s lecture in November; in his outline of the psychological model of gamers, the self-determination theory highlights player experience of need satisfaction, the idea that through this cybernetic feedback between input and output systems, human beings have the ability to feel competent within video games.

In Chinese culture, it’s often considered shameful and almost taboo to be anything but academically successful, and a child addicted to the internet or gaming is a parent’s worst nightmare, causing the family to carry out drastic measures such as that time a father hired ‘online assassins’ to “kill” his son in World of Warcraft, or that time a 19-year old boy from Jiangsu province chopped his hand off to ‘cure’ internet addiction.

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What is internet addiction? Professor Mark Griffiths, a gambling and addictions expert at Nottingham Trent University, explains that “most excessive game playing is usually a symptom of an underlying problem,” such as lack of parental attention or disinterest in pursuing other “conventional” activities such as academics, relationship or sports (BBC). When a child is expected to only study, they need companionship, and when their parents are at work and unable to provide this attention, the kids instinctively look to the internet, where they find similar people and even online relationships. Ultimately, putting – or more plausibly tricking and kidnapping – a kid into ‘rehab’ just isn’t going to change much for family relations.

As much as I see the problems associated with excessive gaming, a part of me believes that there isn’t such a thing as internet addiction – and at the very least, “rehab” isn’t the right approach to dealing with the compulsion. I agree with Professor Griffiths in that “it’s not the time you spend doing something, it’s the impact [the addiction] has on your life.” Though he acknowledges the existence of “very excessive players – playing for 10 to 14 hours a day,” Griffiths asserts that “for a lot of these people [gaming] causes no detrimental problems if they are not employed, aren’t in relationships and don’t have children” (BBC). If these players are content in spending their days at an internet cafe and it does not affect their personal lives, who are we to stop them from “ruining their lives”? Then again, would you define “ruining their lives” through the lack of self control, or actual quantifiable harm on the person’s physical or mental health? Often times, it is their parents who are most affected and concerned by their obsession with gaming, so kidnapping a kid away into a rehab center is definitely not going to help the dynamic. As a nurse from Daxing Camp points out in Web Junkie, “distrust is the origin of despair.”

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