In the small, unincorporated Pacific Northwest town of Fall City, Wash., alongside the Snoqualmie River, a handful of young people in residence at a treatment center called reSTART sit together and share about their debilitating addictions, which led them to skip school, avoid friends and basically confine themselves to their bedrooms. But these kids aren’t talking about their struggles with drugs or alcohol: Rather, they are sharing about their addictions to technology, texting, the Internet and video games—especially so-called “massively multi-player online role-playing games,” or MMORPGs, including World of Warcraft (WoW).
It may sound like the premise for a Saturday-night sketch-comedy show segment, but it’s serious stuff. In some cases following interventions by their families, it’s mostly tech-obsessed young men (and a few women) from ages 18 to 28 who check in here. “Our 21-year-old son had become so addicted to video games, the Internet and porn that he was on the computer 24/7, only leaving the screen to eat, sleep during the day and go to the bathroom,” said one parent. Another related that her son had been playing WoW to the extent that he was failing college.
ReSTART residents will almost always have roommates, depending on how many people—seven max, with an average of five to six—are in treatment at any one time. A typical day involves waking up, eating breakfast, doing morning chores and exercising, followed by a mixture of free time and therapy sessions with a different daily theme. After dinner comes more free time, plus, depending on the day, mindfulness or meditation practice, “social gaming” (aka ultimate frisbee, volleyball or board games), shopping, relationship classes and more—the better to get data-addled young minds reaccustomed to the flow of “IRL” (in real life).
Treatment here follows your mother’s old “get out and get some fresh air!” anti-video game admonishment, as one former resident—who “took care of the goats for a while,” he noted casually—said there were lots of outdoor activities on offer, including hiking, backpacking, camping, kayaking and climbing. Every weekend or so, reSTART takes residents on off-site outings within a three-hour radius of Seattle, which is 26 miles west of the rehab. These include urban jaunts to Emerald City landmarks including the bustling Pike Place Market and Gas Works Park, a reclaimed public greenspace on the site of a former coal gasification plant; great-outdoors trips to Olympic National Park and Mount St. Helens, an active volcano; and service missions to help feed the homeless or to relocate a Puget Sound homeless encampment.
As for the treatment program itself, it’s by necessity somewhat of an ad hoc mixture of counseling, group therapy, special projects—including a video journal that each resident makes of his or her experience—and so on, with a big emphasis placed on developing a “lifestyle sustainability plan” on how to develop moderated technology use in one’s life. ReSTART isn’t of course strictly focused on any 12-step program, given that no such program exists at present for tech, Internet or video-game addiction, but residents are introduced to what the 12 steps are, and how they can be applied to one’s problems. But mostly, reSTART just tries “to prepare us for the ‘real’ world,” as one graduate put it.
In terms of food, reSTART is all about healthy, homecooked meals, with sweets kept to a minimum, fruits and veggies pushed, and caffeine strongly discouraged (although not totally disallowed; some residents drink tea). One grad, in a somewhat contradictory fashion, described the food here as “always good quality” and “usually Costco stuff.” “I was never hungry,” he granted, noting that "a good variety of snacks were also available”—but forget about indulging in the soda or potato chips that used to accompany your marathon gaming sessions.
It probably goes without saying, but you can forget about bringing any smartphones, personal video-game systems or other beeping or blinking devices with you (if you do—aka, the tech version of getting hammered on the plane ride to rehab—your PSPs, iPhones and what-not will, upon arrival at reSTART, be confiscated and placed in a safe). Time on the house phone is tightly controlled, depending on one’s own treatment plan (one resident reported being allowed one call per week), and the Internet is a four-letter word around here, with no web access allowed whatsoever. “The effort was to try to ‘detox’ them of all electronics,” noted one parent. That said, TV is permitted in small doses, such as for an occasional movie or football game.
Unfortunately, tech addiction is a hard one to shake, even after reSTART’s full 45-day treatment program, with several former residents describing how they have struggled with relapses. But progress is being made. One mother related how, although her son hasn’t entirely quit chasing the pixelated dragon, he has gone back to college, where he is getting good grades and reaching out to more people. Said another parent of the improvement she’s seen in her son, “He has made changes in his life so that his relationship to electronics is more in line with other people.” One former resident put it even more succinctly, admitting, “I am better but not totally.”