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[ Science and Tech ]

The Rise of Internet Addiction Rehab

By Charlie Josh Reardon

The word “addiction” once had a very narrow set of associations at the turn of the twentieth century, when it was used primarily in reference to morphine abusers. Although it is now associated with a much wider range of drugs, specifically substances like cocaine and heroin, the term “addiction” has broadened its appeal, welcoming any vice from gambling and pornography to huffing gasoline and eating cat hair

Considering the number of people we see on the streets or on the train who constantly have their eyes glued to a smartphone, it should come as no surprise then that many people may also be suffering from Internet addiction.

Internet Addiction Disorder (or IAD) was thought of as something similar to a joke for therapists during the mid-nineties. It probably sounded no less ridiculous than the jokes your parents used to make about Crackberries, just a mix of empty paranoia and nostalgic rumination from an older generation unprepared for an interconnected world. However, the subject of Internet addiction has drastically changed and the concept has now become a straight-faced topic of discussion between professionals in the field.

Leading The Charge

There are certainly enough horror stories of Internet-related deaths out there to stir a mild frenzy; teens dying of malnutrition at Internet cafes after extended online binges, mothers neglecting their children to play video games and even teens cutting their own hands off in a desperate act to “cure” their compulsive behavior.

Unsurprisingly, the countries that are currently leading the charge against IAD are also the ones who have dealt with Internet addiction’s most drastic cases; China and South Korea, two of the most “wired” nations in the world. The South Korean government believes that 1 in 10 teenagers in the nation are seriously addicted to the internet. Others believe that number is higher still. In 2008, China became the first country in the world to recognize it as a clinical disorder and the government there has declared it to be the greatest threat to the young people of the country.

A patient undergoing treatment from the documentary “Web Junkie”. Image via SVT.SE

The idea of Internet use as a serious addiction is still in it’s infancy, yet there are already thousands of clinics all over the world dedicated to addressing it. China alone has well over four hundred rehabilitation centers across the country with thousands of people currently attending them. This, in a country of over 630 million internet users where 24 million of them are thought to be addicted to the Internet.

The Chinese documentary “Web Junkie” gives a look at one of these rehabilitation centers; a converted military hospital outside Bejjing. Patients, almost entirely children and young adults, are usually brought against their will. Many are tricked into going and some are even drugged. The center uses a boot camp-inspired program complete with military-style marches, drills and educational lectures. There are also frequent sessions between the family members and a therapist.

Patients are subjected to strict codes of behavior and constant surveillance while in isolation from the rest of society. In special cases, serious rule breakers, escapees for example, are put into solitary confinement, sometimes for days at a time. There have also been controversies over the use of electro-shock therapy.

Wired Around the World

While most centers aren’t as extreme, the majority are adopting similar methods and they’re popping up all over the globe (The U.S. got its first center in the summer of 2009, when reSTART opened in Seattle and made headlines). Most clinics utilize isolation from electronics, nature excursions, cognitive therapy and prescription drugs to treat their patients. Doctors also have NMR machines (nuclear magnetic resonance) to monitor brain activity and observe possible abnormalities that occur in patients. These methods have led many professionals to believe that the Internet and electronics such as smartphones produce a similar affect on the brain as drugs like cocaine, disrupting pathways between nerve fibers that control emotions, decision making and self control. 

Despite the hype (and funding), clinical research and tangible results of the therapy have been inconclusive and the medical community stays divided on the issue. Internet addiction still hasn’t been recognized by the American Psychiatric Association and has thus far been excluded from their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the “bible” of mental health professionals. The DSM has been slow to recognize addictions in the past, with compulsive gambling having only recently been included. However, in a possible sign of things to come, the newest edition does identify Internet Gaming Disorder as a condition that warrants additional research.

Gambling is one of the many problems said to be at the root of some Internet addiction cases. 

Arguably, the most divisive issue on the subject of IAD is the exact focus of the addiction. With the Web being so vast and inclusive, addiction sufferers of all types can find their own place online. There’s gambling sites, pornography and Facebook, just to name a few, and almost all cases involve specific obsessions such as these. Therefore, this brings up the question of whether or not a person can truly become addicted to a medium like the Internet or if their addiction is much narrower. There’s also the question of whether IAD should simply be included in a larger family of technology-based addictions instead of standing on its own.

Since IAD isn’t yet recognized as an official disorder, insurance generally won’t cover the cost of rehab, which can run into the tens of thousands. This is unfortunate for those who swear by these programs but can’t afford extended treatment. Serious addiction to anything can affect your career, your social life and your health, but where should the line be drawn?

In a 2013 interview with CNN, Dr. Allen Frances, chairman of the fourth edition of the DSM, said that: “The concern is that there will not be a clear, bright line in between a true Internet addiction and the rest of us, who are using it recreationally. People can spend 10 hours a day in front of a screen, blow off their wives, blow off their work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re addicted.”

More Questions Than Answers

There are currently far more questions than answers in regards to IAD. Could the recognition of Internet use as a problem spawn even more problems? Can false diagnoses result from overzealous psychiatrists? How many drug prescriptions wouldn’t really be necessary? And if IAD was accepted as an official disorder, how many more would crop up in its wake?

Despite all the current research that is being conducted, there is still no reliable way to treat IAD. Unlike electronics and the World Wide Web, most addictions do not present themselves on nearly every street corner, nor are they offered in the form of free WiFi at your nearest Starbucks. The likelihood of “relapse” becomes much higher regarding Internet use precisely because of it’s availability and ease of access. On top of that, there still hasn’t been any fully reliable data or evidence that the methods of Internet addiction clinics translate to the real world when patients are discharged. In other words, how exactly would you treat an individual who was addicted to opioids if the streets were paved with heroin?

As we learn to rely more on the Internet and electronics for our daily tasks, and the age in which our children are inevitably introduced to these things becomes much younger, the concept of Internet addiction cannot continue to be brushed off as a bad joke. Whether it is overstated or not, the public should at least be aware of the possible dangers that Internet addiction may bring because, like mom always said, it might rot your brain.