Ten years ago, Kevin Roberts suffered from an addiction that took over his life.
Roberts, now 44 years old, would sit eight to 12 hours a day in front of the pale blue glow of his computer, playing a videogame. During holidays, he "binged," spending nearly all his waking hours at his keyboard. Finally, a friend who had been through Alcoholics Anonymous told him he displayed all the same characteristics of an addict.
"Like most addicts, I went through a series of self-deception," said Roberts, who documented his struggle with addiction in his book, "Cyber Junkie: Escape the Gaming and Internet Trap."
The story of Roberts, who came to grips with his addiction through years of therapy and spiritual retreats, is not unique. Treatment facilities have sprung up in recent years, but a psychiatric hospital in central Pennsylvania is now set to become the country's first facility of its kind to offer an inpatient treatment program for people it diagnoses with severe Internet addiction.
The voluntary, 10-day program is set to open on Sept. 9 at the Behavioral Health Services at Bradford Regional Medical Center. The program was organized by experts in the field and cognitive specialists with backgrounds in treating more familiar addictions like drug and alcohol abuse.
"[Internet addiction] is a problem in this country that can be more pervasive than alcoholism," said Dr. Kimberly Young, the psychologist who founded the non-profit program. "The Internet is free, legal and fat free."
"[Internet addiction] is a problem in this country that can be more pervasive than alcoholism."
- Dr. Kimberly Young
The program is designed to accommodate four adult patients at a time, with each new class slated to begin treatment on the same day. These classes take part in group therapy and are placed inside a wing of the hospital designated for other addicts. These patients will undergo a psychological evaluation and learn ways they can minimally use the Internet and avoid problematic applications.
Young and other experts are quick to caution that mere dependence on modern technology does not make someone an Internet addict. The 20-year-old who divides his time between his girlfriend and "World of Warcraft" likely does not require intensive treatment. The program is designed for those whose lives are spiraling out of control because of their obsession with the Internet. These individuals have been stripped from their ability to function in daily life and have tried in the past to stop but cannot.
The idea that someone can suffer from Internet addiction first surfaced in the mid-1990s, and Young presented her first paper on the issue in front of the American Psychological Association in 1996. But as the Internet's popularity grew and became a staple in most people's lives, so has the recognition that portion of the population shows signs of being addicted.
Most people with a severe Internet addiction have some type of undiagnosed psychiatric disorder or personality problem, according to Dr. Roger Laroche, the medical director of the department of psychiatry at Bradford Regional. Each patient in the program, which costs $14,000 out-of-pocket because insurance does not cover the expense, will be psychologically evaluated after undergoing a 'digital detox.'
A 'digital detox' is when the patient is cut off from any Internet connection or computer use for 72 hours. For many, the thought of being disconnected from the Internet may feel like a vacation.
But for those with the addiction, they can face withdrawals similar to those seen in people addicted to marijuana. These patients can face depression, irritability and in some cases violence, Laroche said.
Young said one of her outpatients once resorted to chewing Styrofoam cups and unloaded punches into a wall during his detox. In 2010, researchers at the University of Maryland conducted a study where 200 students were asked not to use any form of media for 24 hours, Reuters reported. At the end of the study, many students reported feeling withdrawn and suffered anxiety.
Last May, the American Psychiatric Association released its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5, or DSM-5, for the first time listed "Gaming Disorder" in Section III of the manual, which means it requires further research before being formally identified as a disorder.
The association noted evidence that young men from Asian countries in particular become engrossed in Internet games and "certain pathways in their brains are triggered in the same direct and intense way that a drug addict's brain is affected by the substance."
Dr. Allen Frances, the chairman of the DSM-IV and professor emeritus at Duke University has been a critic of formally identifying Internet addiction as a disorder. He said its listing in Section III of the manual means the disorder "wasn't ready for primetime."
He said there’s little doubt that a small population can suffer from some form of Internet addiction, but believes the research is premature. For example, he asks, where do you draw the line at addiction and recreational use?
"If we can be addicted to gambling and the Internet, why not also include addictions to shopping, exercise, sex, work, golf, sunbathing, model railroading, you name it? All passionate interests are at risk for redefinition as mental disorders," he wrote in an op-ed in The Huffington Post titled, "Internet Addiction: The Next New Fad Diagnosis."