How many hours do you spend on the Internet a day? Do you stay online longer than you originally meant to? Do you feel anxious or irritable when you haven't logged on in a while?
Depending on your answers to those questions, you might be at risk for a controversial disorder called Internet addiction. You aren't alone. At a time when the Internet is an easily accessible and essential part of daily life, for some people, the thing that connects us all has become a destructive force.
Starting September 9, the nation's first hospital-based Internet addiction program is set to open at the Bradford Regional Medical Center in Bradford, Pennsylvania. The program is run by Kimberly Young, a psychologist who began studying Internet addiction in 1994 after watching her friend's marriage disintegrate while her husband spent 50 hours a week in AOL chat rooms. The divorce made Young curious about how this then-nascent thing called the Internet was affecting the population. In 1995, she founded the Center for Internet Addiction, and as the World Wide Web became more ubiquitous, her phone started to ring. "I received calls every week asking if I knew of a clinic or hospital to treat this condition, but there weren't any in the U.S.," Young told Fast Company.
Eventually, Young decided to take matters into her own hands.
While there are several Internet addiction retreats across the country that offer a respite from the web, none of them are hospital-based. These "digital detox" programs often help patients with therapy and coping mechanisms, but they don't medicate patients or diagnose and treat the underlying problems that often accompany addiction, like depression or anxiety disorders. In that sense, Bradford's Internet Addiction Treatment and Recovery Program is the first of its kind—and it's already garnering press attention. Young and her colleagues treat Internet addiction like a real physical and mental affliction, on a par with alcoholism and drug abuse, and aim to assist people in recovery as they would with someone struggling with other substances.
But is Internet addiction a real affliction worth treating in an in-patient setting? A 2006 national study by Stanford University’s School of Medicine concluded that nearly one in eight Americans suffers from at least one sign of "problematic Internet use." These signs include an inability to leave the Internet for an extended period of time to squandered personal relationships due to overuse. Some studies have linked online sharing to a release of dopamine, the same pleasure-inducing chemical emitted by the brain when a person ingests some highly addictive drugs like cocaine or methamphetamine. This year, Internet Gaming Disorder was included in the bible of American psychiatric medicine, DSM-V (the fifth and latest edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).
But Internet addiction itself has never been confirmed by the medical profession as a real disorder. Despite the fact that it's been a topic of both research and discussion since the early 1990s, it's not in the DSM-V. John M. Grohol, a psychologist and cofounder of Mental Health Net, is a bit of an Internet addiction skeptic. "If the profession hasn't agreed upon it to the point where it's not in the book yet, how can you go about treating it in an in-patient setting? It's ridiculous," he says. "If you find the right marketing methods, you're going to appeal to people's fears and find patients for your program."
Young, however, insists these people need help. She says the patients who will be admitted into the Internet Addiction Treatment and Recovery Program are at the extreme end of the spectrum. Like other addicts, she says their habit may have cost them their job, their social life, their marriage, and maybe even their life savings. Many of the people who come to Young look like zombies. "It's like if you were to think of a heroin addict," she says. "They are gaunt and sick almost."
Young stresses, however, that there's no "typical patient." Anyone can be addicted to the Internet, for a variety of reasons. It's worth remembering that not everyone can access the program, which, at its launch, will have room for four patients per 10-day period. All patients must be at least 18. At the time of this posting, there was no wait list, but if Young gets as many phone calls seeking treatment as she claims, patients will come. It's a cash-only program, meaning insurance won't pay your way. Young didn't share the price, but notes that the program is roughly four times cheaper than other addiction centers. For reference, Passages Malibu, a high-end treatment center in California, costs roughly $88,500 for a month of treatment. "We've tried to keep our costs down so that makes it really affordable for someone with limited means," Young says.
The program involves a 10-day stay at the center, where patients will do a full detox from their devices. During that time, they may experience withdrawal symptoms that can be treated with medication. Young didn't specify which meds would be used, but Grohol points out that there are no FDA-approved medications for treating Internet withdrawal. "If you're using a treatment strategy that has research backing linked to substance abuse, and just saying they work for Internet addiction, when there's no research to actually back them up . . . it makes me scratch my head."
The center's treatment programs are tailored to a patient's specific needs. They will meet with therapists and attend classes to understand their addiction and how they can overcome it going forward. They'll also learn about "what they can be doing in terms of sponsorship and support," Young says.
Slowly, technology is reintroduced over the 10-day period. "For one hour you get to do what you really wanna do on the Internet, the next day two, next day three." Patients are counseled about developing coping mechanisms for when they reenter the real world. The main thing is understanding how their use of technology took over so much of their time. "What was it that got them to that point in the first place?" Young asks.
And when the program ends? What becomes of these digitally detoxed people?
Young says that patients go home armed with the knowledge and (hopefully) the will power to resist their urges and a new sense of balance when it comes to technology. After all, if Internet addiction is real and is like other forms of dependency, every day is a struggle for the recovering addict. And unlike other addictions, the Internet is not easily avoidable: Few of us can—or want to—eliminate the Internet from our lives completely.
"Abstinence isn't practical," Young says. For Internet addicts, the goal is learning to find a balance.
[Image: Flickr user TMAB2003]