Ask the Experts

Virtual Addiction

I heard of internet addiction camps in China. Do they have them in the U.S.?

Internet addiction is a growing concern in the classroom, workplace and home. College students in particular have been observed to withdraw from studies because of online obsession. Some U.S. colleges are now counseling students struggling with internet addiction, offering workshops and advisory services on cyber abuse. In answer to your question, there are indeed a number of internet rehab facilities popping up across the country.

Moving to college gives students freedom not experienced while living with parents, including unfettered access to the internet. Many parents, knowing the dangers of addiction, may limit online use for their kids. Once you get to campus these limits are gone.

Unless you can self-regulate your browsing habits, there now exists a chance of becoming addicted to the internet. Studies have revealed that 71% of internet addicts are 18-24 years old, and almost 40% of Americans socialize online more than in person. Over 400 million people globally are said to be addicted to the internet.

Symptoms of internet addiction can include obsessive behavior, frustration, anxiety, insomnia, headaches, and vision problems. Typical characteristics often displayed by teens are anger and irritability, lying about internet usage, decline in work performance, knowing more people online than in person, and poor nutrition and personal hygiene.

Internet addiction is treated using a range of tactics by Chinese medical institutions and the U.S. is following suit. Online addicts in China are often sent to boot camps by their parents, where they undergo military-style exercises and therapy sessions. It was the first country in the world to consider internet addiction a medical disorder and, according to local media, has 24 million addicts.

American students are also spending a lot more time online doing non-work or study-related browsing. Colleges now recognize this as a growing issue and are trying constructive ways to combat it. A military boot camp is a bit extreme, so academic institutions here are opting for clinics, counselling centers and workshops to guide students on healthy levels of internet usage. University-wide ‘unplugging’ days are being encouraged by administrators to help those affected realize life can go on without the internet.

Professional treatment is also becoming available, and the country’s first internet addiction recovery program, reSTART, was established in 2009. The organization aims to break the addiction through structured treatment programs and digital detoxing. According to Mark Prip at Medigap Plans, the government now covers internet addiction treatment through Medicare and other insurance programs.

These methods are more encouraging and productive than the alternatives used in China. Once weaned off digital distractions during the first phases of treatment, patients are slowly re-introduced to them in group settings allowing participants to help and support each other. Counsellors claim the programs also help with other disorders that may be related to internet addiction such as anxiety, depression and stress.

Gaming and internet obsession is slowly gaining medical recognition in the U.S. and professional help is at hand. As with many things in life, moderation is the key.

I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots… Albert Einstein.

Martin J. Young is a former correspondent of Asia Times.