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The jury's still out on whether "Internet addiction" should be considered an official psychiatric condition. On the one hand, it didn't make the cut when the latest version of the DSM came out—even in the "conditions for further study" section. On the other, the last few years have seen a deluge of digital detox camps, retreats, and addiction institutes promising to help people who are hooked on the web.
Now, the debate be damned, the first US hospital is offering a program to treat online addicts. A voluntary, 10 day inpatient rehab program will open on September 9 at the Behavioral Health Services wing of Bradford Regional Medical Center in Pennsylvania, Fox News reported. Web addicts will get psychiatric help in the section of the hospital that offers drug and alcohol detox programs, from experts with backgrounds in those more traditional addictions.
The program was founded by Dr. Kimberly Young, who literally wrote the book on internet addiction back in 1996, when she suspected it was an "emerging disorder." The way Young sees it, the problem can be even more pervasive than alcohol and other addictive substances, because "the internet is free, legal and fat free," she told Fox. Not to mention, millions of people rely on it to do their job and earn a living.
The 10 day treatment is pretty straightforward. Four patients are admitted at a time, and right off the bat are cut off from any internet for 72 hours. At that point, patients might start showing withdrawal symptoms. A February study found that internet withdrawal works a lot like coming down from a drug-induced high, like the inevitable crash after a rolling on Ecstasy. After the detox, patients go to group therapy to learn ways to limit internet use and avoid unhealthy behavior.
Since being cyber-obsessed isn't recognized as a medical disorder, health insurance won't cover the program, so the $14,000 cost of the program will have to come out of pocket. That could help weed out the web users who just can't stop watching cat videos when they need to do homework, and focus on those who really need professional treatment. People like this guy, who was so addicted to War of Warcraft he didn't leave his house for five weeks and was subsisting on takeout and failing out of school before seeking help.
Somewhat ironically, this YouTube video about being hooked on your smartphone went viral.
Net compulsions like gaming or shopping are one offshoot of web addiction, which experts have decided over the years is too broad to stand alone as an all-encompassing disorder. Now it can include computer addiction, cyber-relationship addiction, cybersex addiction, and information overload.
What's more, the definition of addiction itself is notoriously vague: A habit becomes an addiction when it interferes with your daily life. Seeing as the internet is what powers many Americans' daily lives, that's not going to cut it for modern society's latest could-be addiction. For further clarification, Young devised a quiz that's supposed to detect the tell-tale signs that your cyberspace habit is out of control: Do you feel preoccupied with the internet? Do you need to use it with increasing amounts to feel satisfaction? Have you repeatedly tried to stop or cut back but failed? Do you feel depressed or moody when you stop using? Has it jeopardized real-world relationships? Do you use it to escape problems in your life?
I bet a lot of us could answer "sort of" to more than one of these questions. Where do you draw the line between enjoying too much of an unhealthy vice, and needing hospitalization? Bar-hopping until 4 AM doesn't necessarily an alcoholic make. Netflix-binging all weekend isn't a sure sign you're a TV addict. But what if you do it to escape from a shitty day? Do we need to look into film addiction? Book addiction? Virginia Heffernan made a good point in a New York Times editorial, writing, "In general, if a pastime is not classy, those who love it are 'addicted.' Opera and poetry buffs are 'passionate.'"
Where the internet is concerned, the gray area can get murky. It's so murky, the experts can't even agree on when to call it addiction. Some say cyberspace is compulsive, compelling, and distracting, but not addictive the way chemical substances are. Yet other research shows web addicts' brains change the same way drug addicts' do.
A recent study published in PLoS ONE found "abnormal white matter" on brain scans of internet addicts similar to the scans of people hooked on alcohol, cocaine, heroin, marijuana, meth, and ketamine. Both showed disrupted pathways related to emotions, decision making, and self control.
For the majority of web users, the situation isn't that extreme—yet. Still, a break from the endless cycle of emails, social networking, news, torrenting, gaming, and cyberspace's black hole of entertainment and information sounds like an awesome idea. You know, before psychiatric help is required.