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Help at last for the addicts enslaved by the internet

By Guttz, Jun 2, 2013 | |
  1. Guttz
    [imgl=white]http://www.drugs-forum.com/forum/attachment.php?attachmentid=33249&stc=1&d=1370187639[/imgl]A pioneering US centre is battling a global mental health threat, writes Nick Allen

    Isaac Vaisberg finally realised that the internet had taken over his life after a mind-numbing 40 hours of playing the online game World of Warcraft.

    He hadn’t left his Washington DC flat for five weeks, there were 132 missed calls on his phone, and he had put on 40lbs by living off junk food delivered to his door.

    “I’d been playing that game for eight years. February 20 was the last time,” he said. “Initially, I had thought, 'This is ridiculous, you can’t be addicted to a behaviour.’ But I was just scared of calling myself an addict, and accepting that this was something I would have to deal with the rest of my life.”

    Vaisberg, 21, from Venezuela, had won a scholarship to study law and business at a prestigious US college, and seemed to have a glittering career ahead. But as his addiction took hold, he retreated into a virtual world.

    He lost the ability to interact with other people. “I found I could no longer express myself to another human being,” he said.

    For the past three months he has been going cold-turkey at Restart, America’s first residential internet-addiction centre, a five-acre retreat outside Seattle. Ironically, it is a short drive from the headquarters of internet giant Microsoft.

    The house, where half a dozen addicts at a time recover, is the antithesis of the internet age. A sign at the door reads “No cell phones” and gadgets are banned. Instead, there are plush armchairs, a grandfather clock and a piano. Caffeine, which fuels many addicts’ screen binges, is also prohibited.

    Residents readjust to life by cooking for each other, playing board games, reading books, using Lego, attending sessions with therapists, and looking after an Australian shepherd dog called Dakota. There is an emphasis on physical fitness, with morning CrossFit training at 7.30am and a climbing wall. Hiking and tending a chicken coop help them to experience the natural world.

    They are encouraged to send “pings”, or comments, to each other but to say them aloud, eschewing the online version they are used to, making use of facial expressions and body language that form much of traditional communication.

    The first three weeks see some addicts experience sweats and night tremors, difficulty sleeping, depression, anxiety and irritability. Some have been caught trying to smuggle in smartphones.

    Said Vaisberg: “There needs to be more awareness of this, I remember the first friend I told, I said I was a tech addict, and they laughed. I said 'No, I’m serious.’ I was neglecting life outside the virtual world.”

    After 45 days’ treatment, he has developed a love of hiking and fitness, bought a bike, and moved to the second phase of the programme, in which addicts spend six months in an apartment, some getting jobs. He has been given a “dumb phone”, which only makes calls, and is allowed limited, monitored computer access at a local college.

    Like several addicts, he attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, even though none of them is alcoholic. They have found their urges to be similar to those of compulsive drinkers, and use the same terminology such as being “sober”.

    Dr Hilarie Cash, who co-founded Restart in 2009, saw her first addict in 1994. He worked for Microsoft. “Back then I was seeing the trickle before the storm,” she said. “Now the flood is upon us.”

    She says websites such as Reddit, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have “increased the problem enormously. Everything that everybody’s reading is getting them hooked and makes it more ubiquitous.”

    Her patients have included a woman who lost her children because of her addiction to chat rooms, a doctor who forfeited his practice, and people addicted to shopping online and social networking.

    The centre treats only over-18s, but hears from parents wanting to send their 12-year-olds. There have been 4,000 calls since it started.Delegations from China and South Korea, struggling with their own web-obsessed youth, have visited.

    In the US, the concept of internet addiction is not officially recognised. Treatment is not covered by heath insurance and an average stay at Restart costs tens of thousands of dollars.

    The first step towards recognition comes this month when the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders will for the first time include Internet Use Disorder (IUD) as something worthy of “further study”. Brain scans of excessive web users have already found changes similar to those of cocaine, heroin and ketamine addicts. According to Dr Peter Whybrow, a psychiatrist at the University of California, the internet is like “electronic cocaine” and is “degrading the human mind”. The well-known American psychiatrist Dr Keith Ablow argues that it will lead to the “greatest psychiatric epidemic of all time,” causing a “loss of reality and sense of self”.

    Restart resident Carlos Bustelo, 23, from Puerto Rico, lost 50 lbs as he survived on noodles while playing World of Warcraft.

    He has been “sober” since February 2 and is planning to complete his computer engineering degree without owning a computer.

    His backpack contains sheaves of old-fashioned lined notepaper covered in computer code that he has painstakingly written out by hand with a pen. “The thing about computer programming is you don’t actually need a computer to learn it,” he said.

    Robby Hardy, 20, from Mukilteo, Washington wanted to become a writer before he got addicted to surfing the internet. He found himself streaming series of TV shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dr Who, while also compulsively watching YouTube, reading movie reviews on IGN.com and endlessly scouring Wikipedia.

    He said: “I’m an information junkie. Things are constantly being updated and I would just read and read. Now, I read books and get my information from them. I’m more aware, and I’m learning the piano.”

    He is taught by Adam Tuttle, 18, a recently arrived musician who had been addicted to Magic: The Gathering, an online card game played by millions around the world. “I got my first computer at 10 and it took off from there,” he said. “I was going to class and thinking about the game, trying to hack their systems so I could play at school.

    “This is a huge problem. When I became sober, I had friends in the game who stopped engaging with me. If you’re a crackhead, you can only relate with other crackheads.”

    By Nick Allen
    7:00AM BST 02 Jun 2013


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