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.”

XInCheJian

XinCheJian

This Wednesday I visited XinCheJian, the hackerspace in Shanghai. Although it is just a 90-ping studio room, XinCheJian represents the ultimate space for fostering IoT and IT technological innovation, through supporting projects, sponsoring workshops, helping organize members, and holding discussions and forums.

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At Xinchejian, I listened to four presenters on their projects, many of which are already successfully funded on Kickstarter.

For one, I watched a presentation on Dobot, an everyday 4-axis industrial Robot Arm that can “draw, write, text, move, and grab things following your orders.” The creators of Dobot utilized the platform of convenient crowdsourcing to bring his innovation to life. This is the epitome of maker culture today; ten – or even five – years ago, there would not have been this stage through which ‘ordinary’ users could fund their imaginations so easily. Today, with $600,000 funded on Kickerstarter, the Dobot project has successfully finished its campaign and realized its dreams of becoming a real project.

Another presentation was a self-sufficient garden by Etienne Axelos, a French digital designer interning in Shanghai. Utilizing UV sensors, Etienne created autosufficient gardens that detected lack of water and lack of sand to sustain itself without human interference. After the presentations, Jovana and I got a chance to talk to Etienne about his work and his experience.

When I asked him if he thinks these projects will continue to come from DIY innovators or if they will start becoming sponsored projects of the government, Etienne explained his stance against government intervention. Etienne believes that in the context of Chinese VS Hackerspace Innovation, people are not just hackers of Chinese innovation, but “hackers of internet innovation,” and that content comes from the internet and not from the government. In this sense, Etienne believes that maker culture will continue to be what drives DIY hacker culture and innovation, and government involvement would mainly be in helping hackerspaces develop and.

Etienne goes on to explain his view on governments’ involvements in technological innovation. Currently, capitalism is an undeniable way of living, and governments are the judges in this scheme; governments help the companies more and less the individual hackers. Etienne believes that in the future, individual hackerspaces can be as powerful as companies – hackerspaces can go further than the concept of a company or even a country; developing and investing in the success of this area of expertise will necessarily flourish a sector that would otherwise remain shadowed.

This echoes Clay Shirkey’s essay, where he claims that in China, the maker movement puts producers “so far up the supply chain that there were no more supplies” (“China’s version of the ‘Maker Movement’ puts the U.S. to shame”). It is very common for us to believe that in China, the maker movement is in many ways only relevant when producing the products from the ground up. However, Etienne’s experience illustrates how Chinese involvement is prevalent from day one, and whether or not they are directly involved, the hackerspaces is – in some way – sponsored by governments and, hence, receiving support of the country.

At the end of the day, I do not agree with Etienne’s view that the government is only there to lift Capitalist power in technological innovation. Today, people are trying to demonstrate China as “more than cheap factories and knockoffs.” The DIY ethos is what has kept China afloat all these years, and in my opinion, China is not to remain a silent sponsor anymore.