Digital Addiction: Real or Symptom of Other Problems?

Article excerpt

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - The morning's topic glowed on a big screen: "Social Media Burn-out."

Strange, but the 70 hash-tag junkies who attended the August breakfast for Kansas City's Social Media Club appeared mostly fit and happy. Joking, checking their phones, tweeting here and there, munching fruit and whole-grain bagels.

They didn't look sick.

Yet consider the terminology many therapists and researchers use to describe our tight embrace of new technologies: Internet addiction. Or IA, for short. Mental health experts debate the breadth and meaning of the term - if such a malady even exists.

Some contend that excessive computer time leads to insufficient outdoor time, or "nature deficit disorder." The worst sufferers, perhaps, could benefit from digital detox, a getaway from the gadgets that can hook us.

The American Psychiatric Association recently recommended further research into a condition it labeled Internet Gaming Disorder. In the latest version of the APA's diagnostic manual released in May, the group pointed to warning signs in Asia, where too much gaming has landed kids in hospitals.

Can online, all the time, really make you ill?

Try Googling "cyberpsychology." The verdict is split.

One speaker at the burnout breakfast - Brooke Beason, who specializes in social media for an ad agency - recalled the withdrawal symptoms she experienced when giving up Facebook for Lent.

For "40 days and 40 nights," Beason said, she fought the impulse to reach for her phone and post at all hours. "There were a couple of occurrences where I could feel my blood pressure rise," she told the crowd. But over time she felt a greater sense of self-control.

Ramsey Mohsen spoke next.

Director of social media at the digital marketing group DEG in Overland Park, Kan., Mohsen challenged the thinking that a well- wired geek must, on occasion, go cold turkey. His advice: Stay connected, but do not become a servant to gadgetry.

"You control the technology - not the other way around," he insisted.

Mohsen admitted being as tech-obsessed as anyone. He spoke, after all, with the new Google Glass device wrapped around his skull.

Next month, the Internet Addiction Treatment and Recovery Center will open to inpatients at Pennsylvania's Bradford Regional Medical Center.

The center's director, psychologist Kimberly S. Young, said the four-bed hospital unit will be the nation's first to provide medically based detoxification for electronics addicts.

Programs to unplug people from all things digital are in vogue.

The scenic Digital Detox retreat in California offers "four days of serenity and bliss" without devices, enabling the brain "to once again think in truly novel and surprising ways." (So says the retreat's website.)

What Young and Bradford Regional have in mind, however, is a clinical intervention - to rescue gadget addicts whose sleepless lives are crumbling. "We're not horseback riding," Young said.

The treatment plan: Keep patients for 10 days. Medicate, if needed, to stabilize them. After 72 tech-free hours, carefully integrate devices back into their world - because after their release, smartphones, laptops and game consoles will still be out there, seducing them.

Through counseling, the recovery center staff will identify underlying issues - relationship problems, for example - that cause some people to escape to the joystick or keypad.

Whether or not anyone will seek treatment is an open question.

"If Internet addiction is a problem," said Young, who is convinced the disease is real, "you'll see patients."

Parents of game-obsessed youth with poor grades already have expressed interest. But because the American Psychiatric Association does not deem Internet addiction an official diagnosis, health insurers aren't likely to cover treatment, Young said.

Studies estimate that 4 to 10 percent of Americans struggle with keeping computer use in check. …