Boot camp for the Internet-addicted

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Photographer Lorenzo Maccotta spent a week at a digital detox in China

The young people at the boot camp are subjected to "discipline and repetition"

CNN  — 

On his first day at a Chinese treatment camp for young people addicted to the Internet, Lorenzo Maccotta lived liked everyone else there: awake at 5 a.m., physical training in the morning, lunch, rest, more training, ethics lessons, war movies, dinner and bed.

Only once he’d been through a quick version of the digital detox did Maccotta lift his camera.

The 33-year-old photographer spent about a week at one of the hundreds of the military-style boot camps where young Chinese people are quarantined from their compulsive use of technology, mostly online gaming. Even as an outsider, it was difficult to protect his vision and keep his distance from the rigors of the program.

“The main challenge was to keep my mind away from the repetition imposed by the school,” he said. “It was not easy to find the distance to set a point of view.”

Photographer Lorenzo Maccotta

The internees, as he called them, were boys and girls, men and women. They were as young as 8 and as old as 30. Most had been forced to enter the treatment center – sometimes kicking and screaming – by family members concerned about their physical and mental health.

At the center, they were subjected to “discipline and repetition,” which the center’s leaders said would cure their addiction. They might stay for a few weeks or many months, Maccotta said.

“Their personalities are annihilated,” Maccotta said. They stay “behind a formal posture of silence and obedience. They don’t show any sadness, but I’m sure they miss families and friends.”

Their addictions are real and sometimes troubling, Maccotta said. Since 2014, he’s been capturing images that reflect how information and communications technologies are changing the world.

China has acknowledged the addictive nature of the Internet and gaming for years, which led to the opening of treatment centers like the one Maccotta visited. In the United States, the American Psychiatric Association mentioned Internet Gaming Disorder in its 2013 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, saying it’s “a condition warranting more clinical research and experience before it might be considered for inclusion in the main book as a formal disorder.” (PDF) The manual, known as the DSM-5, classifies mental disorders for clinicians, doctors, drug companies and insurers.

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    Working with a local fixer, Maccotta was able to speak with people at the treatment center in China. He met people who described playing video games for 30 hours straight, and he met some people who said they lost touch with reality while sucked into a digital world.

    “I think that what draws the kids to video games is the chance to get (easy) gratification in a virtual world, where they dive deeper and deeper,” Macotta said.

    Officials who lead the center believe its methods – intense physical training, no use of computers – “cures” most addictions, Maccotta said.

    Maccotta agrees that it strengthens awareness among young people about what society sees as acceptable and unacceptable.

    But he has doubts about the long days, hard work, discipline and isolation.

    “It’s very harsh for a kid to live such experience,” he said. “I don’t think this is helpful.”

    Lorenzo Maccotta is an Italian photographer represented by Contrasto.