An infant dies in South Korea while her parents game for hours at a nearby Internet cafe. An American activist commits suicide while fighting charges for Internet downloading. At a government boot camp in China, teenagers march, sing, and swallow pills in an effort to kick their “Internet addictions.” Filmmakers told these stories in three documentaries at last month’s Sundance Film Festival. Though their dark subjects are extreme examples of the Internet’s effect on our lives, the films pose important questions that many online users might ponder: How has the Internet changed our relationships? How should the Internet be regulated? What is sharing, and what is stealing? At Sundance, SciFri chatted with the filmmakers behind Web Junkie, Love Child, and The Internet’s Own Boy about their perspectives on an Internet culture in constant flux.
Web Junkie, directed by Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia
In Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia’s documentary Web Junkie, filmgoers are flies on the wall of the Internet Addiction Treatment Center in Daxing, China. Located outside of Beijing, the center is one of more than 400 rehabilitation camps that the Chinese government has founded to treat internet gaming addiction, which it considers a “clinical disorder” and the “number one health threat to [China’s] teen population.” Medalia and Shlam follow Nicky, Hope, and Hacker—three “web junkies”—over the course of their four-month “treatment” program at Daxing. Like most of the camp’s residents, the teens are male.
Shlam told SciFri she was drawn to the web junkies’ story because, as someone who grew up before the Internet’s ubiquity, she sees its impact on human relationships. “You see less people, you talk less to people, you are very isolated in a way,” she said. For her and Medalia, the question that web users, parents, and societies all need to ask themselves is deceptively simple: How much is too much when it comes to time online? For the kids at Daxing, the answer is “never enough.”
Before their parents checked them in, many of Daxing’s patients had dropped out of school to play games like World of Warcraft for days at a time. Some wore diapers while gaming. Medalia said Chinese teens are driven online as “an escape from something.” Because of China’s “One Child” policy, Nicky, Hacker, and Hope have no siblings. “They go through a lot of pressure,” said Medalia. Their parents want them to excel, she said, and “their way to deal with that is to tell [their kids], ‘Study, study, study.’” Alienated and alone, China’s web junkies build their most meaningful relationships online. “Do you have friends in reality who you can share your secrets with?” an off-camera interviewer asks Hacker. “No,” the boy says. His real friends are online, because “reality is too fake.”
Shlam and Medalia won’t say whether gaming “addiction” should be considered a medical disorder or not, but Shlam offered this: “If [Internet addiction] is a social phenomenon, if all of us are in this pathology, there is no addiction, right?” The sentiment echoed a Daxing boy’s crack at the Chinese government: “If you check their definition of Internet addiction,” he says in the film, “80 percent of all Chinese must have it.”
Love Child, directed by Valerie Veatch
Love Child, an HBO documentary set in South Korea, explores the impact of a headline-grabbing 2010 case in which an infant, Kim Sa-rang, died from neglect while her parents gamed at a local Internet café. (Ironically, the couple was raising a virtual child within the role-playing game they were addicted to.) The parents avoided serious jail time when their lawyer claimed in court that they were addicted to online gaming. They “were incapable of distinguishing between the virtual and the real” he says in the film.
“The story, to me, represented a distinct moment in human history where the divide between the real world and the virtual world collapsed,” Veatch told SciFri. Easy Internet access—due to an aggressive governmental campaign in the ‘90s to extend broadband access—is perhaps one reason why more and more South Koreans are living in a “mixed reality,” as one interviewee in the film describes it.
Sa-rang’s parents met inside of a game, and it’s also where they made money. “The internal economies [of these games] are real,” Veatch told SciFri. “You get to a dungeon! You meet a dragon! You need a sword! If you pay 20 cents to upgrade your sword, you can advance in the game.” Advanced players can make money selling items they’ve earned in games (such as swords) to less advanced players, a practice Koreans call “gold farming.”
Watching Love Child is an unnerving experience. Could this be a common scenario in the United States in 20 years? But for a filmmaker drawn to such a heartbreaking story, Veatch is surprisingly optimistic about our technological future. “It’s a problem today but it won’t always be a problem,” she said, citing efforts by the South Korean gaming industry to use games to also treat health problems. “I’m a total techno-utopian.”
The Internet’s Own Boy, directed by Brian Knappenberger
In January 2013, the programming genius, RSS architect, and dedicated “free culture” activist Aaron Swartz took his own life at the age of 26. Before his death, Swartz—a vociferous advocate for open-access online—had been battling charges under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). His alleged crime? Illegally accessing a computer network at MIT in order to download articles from the academic database JSTOR en masse. The charges carried a potential 35-year prison sentence. A year later, Brian Knappenberger’s documentary The Internet’s Own Boy tells Swartz’s story through intimate interviews with family, friends, and fellow activists.
Knappenberger’s film doesn’t prescribe just where the line between “stealing” and “sharing” should fall. But he said that he hopes it will encourage viewers to take a more active role in advocating for Internet policies that they believe are just. If they do, they’ll be picking up where Swartz left off.