header_piece

Warning: Cyber Addiction Needs to be Treated

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.

 

6 Responses to “Warning: Cyber Addiction Needs to be Treated”

  1. Anthony says:

    Interesting article. I have struggled with video games myself, and know others who have. I am totally in agreement with Jerry – you can’t let problems like this fester and grow for a decade or two, and the wonder why it’s so big of a problem.

    But… still, I’m skeptical about simple problems and simple solutions
    (such as the idea that video games are the root of the problem), and instead find it more plausible that the addiction is a symptom of broader societal issues.

    Some things to keep in mind: Chinese parents have been known to sell their children for many reasons:
    http://www.ndtv.com/article/world/chinese-officials-seized-and-sold-babies-parents-say-124536
    http://www.humantrafficking.org/updates/862
    http://www.upiasia.com/Human_Rights/2009/06/01/chinas_missing_children/9066/
    This is, essentially, a bi-product of Chinese cultural norms and economic issues, and is unlikely to happen in the US.

    Also, TV, music, and even BOOKS have been shown to be addictive and correlated with inspiring undesirable behaviors, including but not limited to violence. Neil Postman’s work is a great example of writing that looks at technology in general with a pessimistic eye, but makes many assumptions, false correlations, and false causal inferences. Instead of taking the simple route of vilifying the games, we need to look at more foundational issues (both sociological and psychological), and synergistic effects.

    Jane Mcgonigal notes that often, gamers are trying to escape from reality – to go to a place where they can feel important, needed, and like they are part of something. In other words… why wouldn’t you play video games, if there’s nothing better to do in real life? I’m reluctant to blame video games, in and of themselves, for any direct problems. I know they can be addictive, but like many addictions, the problems are symptomatic of other issues – for example parenting issues. Should kids even be allowed to play video games – or watch tv, or stay out till whenever, where ever? Hell no. But parents let their kids do this anyways, establish poor discipline and respect norms (too loose or too strict), and then wonder why their kids don’t listen, and think they can do whatever they want. As an educational studies graduate student, I’ve learned to be skeptical of direct correlations, especially those without identifying alternative explanations, and providing substantial evidence suggesting that the alternative explanations are implausible. I would also warn you against loose logic, anecdotal evidence, and simple solutions that attack symptoms, but not causes.

    In addition to poor support from parents, we must look at things like:

    the poor economy – can’t find a job? Can’t afford to go to camp? Need something to do where you feel rewarded, people value you and your contributions, and you get some sense of belonging? Why would you do a crappy job where you will be treated like shit and you personal value is perceived as nothing? Whether they are bored kids or struggling adults, people have often feel they have nothing else to do but play video games to feel fulfilled, or coped with reality.

    poor cultural norms for respect – when’s the last time a TV or movie character was held in high esteem for listening to their elders, being peaceful, for talking out a problem without resorting to violence, for compromising in a productive way? NO! You must get what you want or need by force, and the world will cheer you on!

    Double standards for violence – Note the way countries, political, and religious groups push their agendas, often viewing violence (or threats of violence as the answer). Characters in many media are almost universally glorified for their violent acts towards “bad” people, or people who try and keep others from their “rights.” America is one of the few industrialized nations that has yet to get rid of the death penalty – people need to punished, not reformed. Violence is often seen as humorous. Did you know that there were countries where Loony Toons were banned, because they were children shows displaying violence?

    The list goes on and on…

    • kevin says:

      Wow, thanks for the feedback! I mentioned this to Kevin, and would like you to consider writing a guest blog.

      Anthony, agree entirely, especially with regard to using videogames as a means for escaping from society; I, myself, am guilty of this for many of the years I’ve spent as a gamer.

      • Jerry says:

        Anthony, you may want to get yourself a copy of Kevin’s book. It is very balanced and circumspect. I think you would get a lot out of it. I appreciate your point about cultural norms. While that sort of thing does happen in China, it still says a lot that it is happening to maintain a video game lifestyle. However, like Kevin mentions in his book, the outlandish and sensational news stories that make Yahoo! news represent a minute percentage of the actual problem. As Kevin also states in his book, the more widespread problem is the fathers and mothers who come home and spend 2-3 hours online, time that their children desperately need.

  2. Selena says:

    Thank you. Excellent information!

  3. Jerry says:

    I agree totally. Luckily, we began to deal with this problem when my grandsons were young. I think it is important to begin to examine this issue when kids are young, pre-teen, especially with the boys!

  4. Frances says:

    Hello Mr. Roberts, I just read your blog, and I think you’re onto something here. It’s tragic that people can’t get the help they’re asking for because insurance won’t cover it. That’s the problem with this country… And can you believe people tried to sell their children? And that’s not a sickness?

Leave a Reply



Footer_Piece