I think most of us are, at least, a little addicted to technology. Remember that panicky feeling you had last time you accidentally left your phone at home? Or how you automatically pull out your phone when you have 30 seconds to kill waiting for a light to change?
But for some, technology and Internet addiction is serious, even life destroying.
A couple weeks ago I visited reSTART, the nation’s first and only in-patient Internet addiction recovery center. Six people, usually men, spend about eight weeks detoxing from Internet addiction in a big house, out in the woods of Fall City.
“The folks who come here are addicted to some aspect of technology,” said reSTART’s co-founder and Chief Clinical Officer, Hilarie Cash. “It’s usually video games, some social media, pornography.”
Cash says the guys tend to be smart, and from supportive families, but they’ve flunked out of college or lost jobs when video games took over their lives.
“Most people who arrive here are highly anxious and depressed,” Cash said. “The detox period, on average, it takes about three weeks for the brain to go through that process of upregulating to normal again. By the end of that three-week period, most people are no longer as depressed, no longer as anxious. They’re just feeling better, in part just because of the time away. But it’s also because of the fitness, healthy eating, catching up on sleep.”
Treating Internet addiction
A typical day consists of several psychoeducational meetings, lots of exercise, making meals and tidying the house. Teaching basic life skills is also a component since so many of these guys would spend all of their time in front of a screen. They’re also taken hiking and camping.
While Internet addiction is a common issue, reSTART treats a range of problems.
Sam — not his real name — has been at reSTART for five weeks.
“I started out by just gaming for fun and I would still go do things with my friends,” Sam said. “But eventually, it turned into, you know, why would I go out and do stuff when I could easily be satisfied by not going anywhere? Instant gratification. So that led me to fail out of college.”
Sam moved back home with his parents, and one day when he came home there was a strange car outside. It was reSTART, there to pick him up for an intervention. After the initial shock and anxiety wore off Sam is grateful to be there.
“I’ve spent a lot of time meditating,” he said. “As an individual, I failed to really look inside myself and handle my own emotions, which is kind of how I became a gaming addict in the first place, right? Work is stressful [so I’d] go home, play video games. Don’t have to deal with it. Mindfulness and meditation are the vast majority of how I’ve recovered. I spend probably four to six hours a week meditating. It’s a whole new experience I would have written off a month ago.”
Will — also not his real name — checked into reSTART with video game and pornography addictions. He thinks there are higher powers to blame.
“Silicon Valley, and I think by extension, Redmond, they’ve made their fortunes off of developing technologies that increasingly take away our time with real people,” Will said. “I think, morally, there’s a huge question about whether those fortunes are worth the psychological damage it’s doing to us as a community. They’ve done tons of psychological research to figure out how to keep people hooked.”
reSTART has three phases. The first is living in the Fall City house. Then 90 percent of participants choose to move on to Phase Two.
“Phase Two is living in apartments together in Redmond,” Cash said. “Getting into the workforce. We call it getting a recovery job. So they’re working at Target or in the food industry. Things that don’t involve sitting in front of a computer.
Phase Three is moving into their own place, perhaps with other reSTART graduates, and continue to have limited check-ins with reSTART.
“I think of video games as a drug,” Cash said. “What families don’t realize is they are handing this drug to very, very young children because they don’t understand what the addictive potential is. I don’t blame the parents, but I think they’re victims of the culture.”
Cash told me about limbic resonance, which basically means that human brains thrive on in person, human-to-human contact.
“Many people turn to the Internet because of loneliness and they think because they are in an online chat community, they get to know the people they’re gaming with,” Cash said. “They think, ‘Well, I’m getting my social needs met this way.’ But the research is, the more time we spend online, the more depressed we become. So clearly people are not getting their needs met online.”
“We actually have to be face to face with one another,” he said. “Perhaps it’s because we have to smell each other and see each other and hear each other and touch each other. That might be part of what’s required for that limbic resonance to occur. That’s part of what’s happening here that’s so important. It’s a small, intimate, safe community. I think there’s lots of limbic resonance going on and it’s part of why people start calming down and feeling better.”