Internet "Addiction" Debate Rages On

By Sarah Beller 11/08/12

As NBC airs an interview with an Internet addict, the co-founder of the first dedicated residential tech rehab tells The Fix why the problem deserves recognition.

Brett Walker speaks to Dr. Nancy Snyderman
about his online obsession.
Photo via

In an interview airing tonight at 10 pm EST on NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams, recovering Internet addict Brett Walker talks about how his compulsion to play games like World of Warcraft nearly ruined his life. The 28-year-old Texan eventually sought treatment at reSTART, the first residential treatment program in the US dedicated to helping people with Internet addiction. Treatment involves a minimum of 45 days with no access to digital technology, which—according to the program's co-founder, Dr. Hilarie Cash—is about how long it takes for the often “brutal” withdrawal process to occur. The program also encourages graduates to use its after-care program, in which recovering addicts are paired up in a digital technology-free apartment for six months or longer.

Cash co-founded reStart in 2009 to help the growing population of Internet addicts she’d noticed in her own practice. She tells The Fix that clients are often in a terrible state when they arrive: “Because they are neglecting the real word,” she says, “things fall apart. It’s like a heroin addict who goes on a heroin binge, and just wants to be in that cave. They completely forget about the world. If they are married and have kids, they’re not taking care of them. If they are students, they’re not taking care of academics. They are generally neglecting physical health, not eating right, and not exercising.” This year, the American Psychiatric Association will add “Internet Use Disorder” to the appendix of the DSM-V, deeming it a condition "recommended for further study."

But some still question whether technology obsession is a “real” addiction. Dr. Allen Frances, a psychiatrist who chaired the DSM-IV and is currently a professor emeritus at Duke University, has been fighting efforts to add the diagnosis to the new manual. “I’m not arguing against the fact that there’s a small group of people who suffer horribly from this,” he says. “But when you introduce a diagnosis into the system, it’s very likely to take off in directions you never imagined, and become a fad. Where do you draw the line? Why not include…golf addiction, model-railroading addiction?”

In response to such critics, Cash tells us: “Internet addiction is being recognized as a very real phenomenon. It’s just a matter of time, there’s a ton of research that shows the brain lights up in the same pattern as drug and alcohol.” Brett Walker certainly seems to agree: “Whenever I went online, it really was like getting high on a drug,” he says in his interview. Cash says that programs like reStart can help, but cautions that rehab isn't a magic bullet. She says that it's “really common to struggle and relapse when a person first leaves an inpatient setting and has to face digital temptations at every turn. But especially if they stay connected with us through our after-care program, it is possible for them to learn how to successfully manage a healthy relationship with digital technology.”

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Sarah Beller is a writer and the Executive Director at Filter. She has written about drug policy with a focus on harm reduction for Substance.comThe Fix and Salon. She has worked as a social worker with formerly incarcerated people in New York for a number of years. Her writing has also appeared in McSweeney’sThe HairpinThe ToastReductressThe Rumpus and other publications. You can find Sarah on Linkedin and Twitter.