Internet Addiction Treatment Industry Grows in the United States

By May Wilkerson 10/01/15

There are hundreds of internet addiction treatment centers across the world.

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Internet addiction isn’t an official addiction, at least according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). But more and more young people across the United States are finding their lives derailed by technology addiction, leading to a new industry of rehabs treating technology-related disorders.

Roey Gabay, 20, became hooked on an online game called Defense of the Ancients, which he would play up to 12 hours a day. The addiction caused him to neglect sleep, socializing and his schoolwork, costing him a college scholarship. "Everything was overshadowed by video games," said Gabay. "It seemed like a routine I just couldn't break."

There are hundreds of centers treating disordered Internet use in some parts of the world, especially East Asia, where Internet and gaming addiction are a widely reported, growing problem.

The reSTART Center for Digital Technology Sustainability, a retreat center outside of Seattle, is one of a small but growing number of these centers in the United States that use a substance abuse treatment model to help young people like Gabey overcome their dependence on computers, games, and iPhones. The center was founded in 2009, and was the first center in the US to focus exclusively on video game and Internet addicts.

Clients attend reSTART for a minimum of eight to 12 weeks in “Phase 1,” which requires total abstinence from the Internet, smartphones, computers and video games. During this time, clients participate in a range of activities from camping to cooking, hiking, exercise and caring for animals. They also attend group and individual counseling sessions, where they develop a plan for how to structure their lives after they leave the center.

Most clients at reSTART are young college dropouts who ended up there at their parents’ urging. Right now, all the clients at reSTART are young and most are male, but there are a few women, like 19-year-old Chloe Mason. Like Gabay, she was addicted to online gaming, which began when she was 16. “I was pretty much playing all day," she recalls.

Her addiction contributed to her going from a straight-A student to failing her college classes and wracking up $4,000 in debt from gaming purchases. After completing Phase 1, Mason will go on to the program’s Phase 2, an outpatient program in which clients check in regularly with counselors as they assimilate back into their lives.

Hilarie Cash, co-founder of reSTART, says she first started the rehab when she observed many of her clients struggling with Internet and gaming addiction. She saw a growing problem, exacerbated by the advent of the smartphone. "It’s always accessible for whatever your chosen poison," she said. "That has ratcheted up the problem enormously."

Internet and gaming addiction are gradually becoming more recognized as a significant medical issue, but more research is needed to fully understand the problem and develop effective treatment. Some studies suggest that pathological gaming or Internet use can actually change the brain, similarly to drug addiction. More research suggests that some addicted gamers play so much they endanger their jobs, education, and relationships, and may experience symptoms of withdrawal if they quit.

"It’s not a commonly reported behavioral pattern, but it’s getting more noticed in the international literature," said Lawrence Lam, a behavioral epidemiologist with the Hong Kong Institute of Education who has studied Internet use disorder in East Asia. "There’s a whole lot we don’t know, and that’s the reason why we need to devote a whole lot more research in this area to really understand the phenomenon."

Adding technology addiction to the DSM could pave the way for the development of more treatment centers like reSTART. Right now there are only three in the United States. The other two have different approaches. The Internet Addiction Treatment and Recovery Program at the Bradford Regional Medical Center in Pennsylvania focuses primarily on a cognitive behavioral model of addiction treatment with the aid of pharmaceutical drugs. The Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery in Peoria, Ill., relies on a 12-step approach, emphasizing abstinence.

All three of these treatment centers are expensive; reSTART costs around $25,000 for the first month and $8,500 for a month of outpatient treatment. Cash says getting Internet use disorder listed in the DSM would be crucial, as it would help families get treatment covered by insurance. "We're making great progress," she said. "I know it will get in."

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.