Every participant in my cyber recovery groups shares one thing in common: escapism. Video games, online social networking, and the Internet provide us with alternate realities, different worlds that allow us to avoid the unpleasantness and dissatisfaction of the world we inhabit. The extent to which we avoid our problems mirrors, in many respects, our risk for becoming cyber addicts.
Alex, a member of one of my cyber recovery groups, was diagnosed with a very rare cancer at the age of eight. The prognosis was not good. As a result, he was allowed to play video games to his heart’s content. A social worker at the hospital even suggested he think about the “bad guys” as his cancer cells. “This idea,” Alex told me, “gave me something tangible to make me think I had some control over the disease. My success in video games was, in my mind, tantamount to the treatment succeeding.” Alex credits video games with saving his life. This is a fairly common practice, and can be of great therapeutic benefit. Re-mission, for example, is a game that was specifically designed for this purpose. Alex’s treatment ended, so did the usefulness of video games in his life.
Alex, however, refused to return to the real world. “Thinking I was going to die,” he said, “was like living in another world. When I beat the cancer, I never really came back to this world.” Alex had a host of issues to deal with, including ADHD, the symptoms of which were exacerbated by the massive amount of radiation to the head he received. He avoided homework, most social contact, and exhibited constant anger for about the next decade. “I got angry,” Alex said, “only when people, usually my parents, tried to separate me from my game.”
Like many cyber junkies with whom I come in contact, Alex refused to deal with his problems and used the cyber world to avoid them. Jon, a seventeen-year-old cyber junkie, suffered from severe social anxiety. His father, a psychotherapist, tried desperately to get his son into computer camps. The father put in hours of research to find camps that would fit his son’s personality. The son flat out refused to go, preferring the safety of his computer chair and World of Warcraft. It is a clear-cut case of a person using the cyber world to avoid growing and evolving.
I think gaming and social networking can be quite fun, useful, and also educational, but many people with preexisting problems use the cyber world to escape. If you have a loved one who spends too much time online, consider what he or she might be trying to escape or avoid. The cyber world is not the problem. It is simply a convenient outlet for individuals who choose to bury their heads in the sand. If you’re a parent, you may need to remove Internet and computer access until your child agrees to get some help. If you are dealing with a spouse, a hard ultimatum may be necessary. In this, as in all recommendations I make on this blog, please seek the guidance of a therapist or trained mental health professional. Excessive cyber behavior may simply be the tip of a much more massive underlying iceberg.