I have been getting a lot of phone calls and emails lately regarding whether or not I believe excessive cyber behaviors rise to the level of addiction. I believe that cyber behaviors can and do meet the criteria for impulse control disorders and addiction, but the mental health community does not share my beliefs, at least not in an official capacity. Yesterday, I spoke with a psychiatrist friend of mine and he cautioned me to be patient. “Changing diagnostic categories and adding new ones is a laborious, slow-moving process,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”
Later in the day, I spoke to Sharon, who is having trouble getting her emotionally-disturbed son admitted to a treatment center. Sharon and I have been talking now for several weeks. Her son’s disturbed mental state—and increasingly erratic behavior—stem from the young man spending over 16 hours a day on his computer playing a variety of online games. The family is not wealthy, but they do have a generous health insurance plan. Unfortunately, the treatment centers that specialize in video gaming-related issues do not take their insurance. They do not have the kind of money to afford private pay, especially for the extended stay Sharon is sure her son will need. He has been held for observation on a few occasions in local “community mental health” facilities, but they generally only keep folks for 48-72 hours. None of these short inpatient stints have produced any real changes in the situation.
The young man always had an incredible penchant for video games, his mother told me, but a family crisis caused her son to spiral out of control. Sharon’s husband Mike, a 43-year-old IT manager, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis two years ago, and family focus increasingly shifted to helping him recover and get back to work. Perhaps bereft of his parents once vigilant and interactive influence, the young man increasingly spent time alone online. A year into Mike’s illness, Sharon began to notice how out of of touch she was with her son. When she attempted to limit his online time, she was shocked at her son’s raging outbursts. “He really wasn’t the same person,” Sharon said. “He had gone from being an all-A student to all C’s and D’s, and his friends seem to have vanished. Everything was about being online.”
The young man is not bipolar, nor has he been diagnosed with any other serious psychiatric disorder. Doctors have told Sharon that he has a “garden variety” anxiety and anger management problem. He is very good, his mother says, at “schmoozing doctors.” Sharon is convinced—and so am I after having extensively interviewed the parents and siblings—that her son is dealing with a bona fide addiction. Like many addictions, the addictive behaviors often mask other issues. In this case, unexpressed feelings around the ramifications of his father’s illness most likely underlie the manifesting behaviors. Sure, the video gaming issue is probably just the tip of the iceberg, but Sharon needs to get that treated before they can begin to delve into the other issues that her son certainly must confront. At this point, getting her son the proper treatment may mean taking out a second mortgage!
When access to a substance or behavior is more important than the people we love and the activities we used to enjoy, addiction must be seriously considered as a culprit. Continuing use of a substance or performance of a behavior in spite of serious negative consequences comprises another telltale sign of addiction. Sharon’s son certainly exhibits both of these criteria, and so do millions of other cyber junkies around the world. Investigators in far-away China have recently discovered that a couple had been selling their children to finance a lifestyle comprised of spending most of the day playing online games at cyber cafes. NFL lineman, Quinn Pitcock, struggled with anxiety and turned to playing video games 16-18 hours a day, ruining his career, at least for now. I spent over 14,000 hours in computer games over 10 years, stunting my chances for success, and giving me continuing back problems along with carpal tunnel syndrome. The allure of the cyber world can bring about an impulse control disorder, causing people who are usually rational and high functioning to slip into “madness.”
I advise mental health professionals to look more closely at the data and give mothers like Sharon the help and understanding they deserve by realizing the addictive nature of many excessive and obsessive cyber-related behaviors. Going to school on the dangers of the cyber world will help you help your clients.