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Web is bad for kids, but good for seniors?

CYBER-SENIORS (2014).Max and Shura

Credit: The Best Part Inc.

Web Junkie

Directed by Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia

Classification PG; 74 min

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Attention, parents! Do you worry about your teenage boy and his relationship with the Internet? Does he have questionable hygiene and the sleeping habits of Dracula? Does he talk ceaselessly of worlds that aren't real, of deadly battles fought only with his thumbs?

Well of course, you say. He's just being a teenage boy.

But what if he has an addiction? What if he's actually a Web junkie?

In China, according to the muddled new documentary Web Junkie, tens of thousands of parents are handing over their glassy-eyed gamer sons to medical interventions. An on-screen card explains that the Chinese government is the first in the world to classify Internet Addiction as a clinical disorder; Beijing considers it to be the number-one threat to the health of its teenage population.

So, in a country that never met a problem it couldn't confront with military tactics, the government has built more than 400 boot camps to rehabilitate the addled hordes. The filmmakers spend months at one such camp, in a suburb of Beijing, to which many of the boys have been brought under protest or duress – at least one was apparently nabbed from his bed and carried in while still sleeping. The treatment regimen appears to comprise rousting the unwilling residents early from barracks to perform desultory calisthenics, having them ingest mood-altering drugs, and classroom time spent listening to a professor explain that the "social part of the brain" is being stunted by their gaming.

But while the professor also takes time to tell the camera that he and his staff consider gamers to be "the same as heroin addicts … That's why we call it 'electronic heroin,' " the film is less interested in exploring the questionable science behind the program's practice. It is also uninterested in challenging allegations that the boys are disconnected from reality. But when we meet one father, who admits to beating his son and threatening him with a knife, it's not hard to imagine why the boy and his fellow residents might have fled into the warm embrace of an online world.

Cyber-Seniors

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Directed by Saffron Cassaday

Classification G; 75 min

Watching the lighthearted documentary Cyber Seniors, you might think China is missing a big opportunity to put all those Web junkies to work, helping their elders get online.

The film follows a small group of Toronto high-schoolers who went into seniors residences a few years ago to introduce octagenarians and nonagenarians to the wonders of Facebook and Skype. There's an easygoing humour and spiky authenticity to their interactions that will ring familiar to anyone who has tried to help an elder embrace technology. Some of the pairings seem made for film, like a 19-year-old kid whose reassurance to a frisky gal that he's available for help 24/7 results in her suggestion that he move into her spare bedroom; soon, with his help, she's trolling the Jewish dating site J-Date.

After they've gotten their feet wet with Facebook and made sure they can remember their passwords, the seniors take a bold step: making funky videos that compete for popularity on YouTube and Facebook. One grandma, rocking a backward baseball cap and chains around her neck, spits boastful raps about having all her teeth. Then there's Shura, who already has a tiny viral hit with a video demonstrating how to cook a grilled cheese sandwich with a clothes iron, following up with a bartending recipe for a tipple that looks like a Creeper from the online game Minecraft.

Still, it can be hard putting yourself out there. As Shura scrolls through the comments on her video and sees "18 Likes and 1 Dislike," she begins to fixate on that one negative review. She suspects she has a secret enemy. "Who could dislike something so innocuous?" she wonders aloud.

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Who, indeed?

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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