Cyberland: The Great Escape

Posted on by Kevin.

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.


  1. Hi Kevin – find your blogs interesting and informative. Would love to know more about your cyber recovery group – number of members, their ages, their stories, how/why they joined, how many times a week you meet, what you do during meetings, how you support each other outside of meetings, etc. Keep up the great work!!!

    Posted on by linda
    • Thank you Linda. I appreciate your interest. The groups are for teens all the way through adults, but some groups are strictly for teens, and others strictly for adults. Most groups meet once a week. Usually, they find out about them by word of mouth or from the Internet.

      Posted on by Kevin (Author)
  2. These are fascinating case studies on cyber addiction. I would really like to hear how the stories end! Is this the kind of information that will be available in your book?

    Posted on by Tegan
    • Yes Tegan. The ending of the stories will certainly play out on the blog, but the book lays them out all at once. Of course, many anecdotes will appear on the blog but not in the book. Thanks for your comment!

      Posted on by Kevin (Author)
  3. I felt growing up, it wasn’t so much my ADHD or my genetic history of addiction issues, but rather a control issue. As a young child, you only have control over so many things – you generally portray an initially weak character, that over a relatively short time grows into something powerful. Being able to control certain aspects of that other world were an outlet for not being able to control external forces. When someone intervened on my 14-hour gaming sessions over the summer, it was seen as an attack on my control over the game. My parents created a token system (based on household chores), that, when cashed in, allowed video game use for the next day only. It helped to maintain some aspect of the control – knowing the system for access. I think when parents forcibly remove that escape with an ultimatum, but don’t give an out other than counseling, the person goes in to counseling with a different attitude than if it were a real choice, and could hinder growth.

    Posted on by Nathan
    • Nathan, you really have made a great comment. Good parents, I think, nurture their child’s independence, which dovetails with the ability to make choices. Parents who enforce severe restrictions and, thus, take away their child’s choice, do not end up creating self-assured, independent adults. Video games do provide parents with powerful motivational potential, a point to which you alluded in your comments. They need to use it to nurture the ability to choose for oneself. Nathan, please keep up with the blog. We need people like you weighing in on these issues. 🙂

      Posted on by Kevin (Author)
    • Why thank you. 🙂 Please come back and stay part of the discussion.

      Posted on by Kevin (Author)
  4. I do have one bone to pick with you… You write “choose” to bury their heads in the sand. From working with struggling teenagers, I have often found that they truly feel they have no choices. Or, perhaps their surroundings are so strict that they really have no choices. Our society has yet to help teens have a smooth transition into young adulthood.
    As a teen, I had panic attacks that led to potential agoraphobia. The doctors at the time told me “you can choose to have a normal life, just make yourself”. This, of course, only made the problem worse. Once 21 (the “respectable” adult age), I was taken seriously, given a proper diagnosis, proper treatment and worked on a happy life… Giving teens some slack and telling them to ‘just deal’ is a very fine line, in any abnormal social situation(s).

    Posted on by Kelly
    • Thanks Kelly. I certainly understand people believe they have no choices. Perhaps one first line battle is to convince people who feel that way that they do have choices. I know that the only way I have changed in my life is to own my choice and realize that the only I can control is how I respond. Sometimes, taking this type of personal responsibility is extraordinarily difficult, but it is the only reliable way I know to change, along with getting plenty of support. I suspect you, like me in my younger years, did not get the proper support. That is certainly a major part of the equation. Thanks very much for weighing in.

      Posted on by Kevin (Author)
  5. Hi Kevin,

    Love your blog.

    Whilst I agree largely with everything you say, I do think that the term ‘escapism’ doesn’t point well enough to the bigger picture. ‘Escapism’ place too much influence on the situation that the addict is trying to leave. I think there is value in honouring the human drive for heroism and imagination. If we are to serve the future generations it must be about finding ways of providing the kinds of experience in real life that people so deeply year for but can’s see a way to experience it beyond their computer screens.

    Keep up the great work.

    Michael Irwin

    Posted on by Michael Irwin
    • Mike, here is a quote that I think adds to your wisdom:
      For success, the necessary ingredient may be an ability to turn away from the everyday world, from the simply practical, an ability to re-think a subject with originality so as to create in new, untrodden ways.
      ~Dr. Hans Asperger

      Posted on by Kevin (Author)
    • And Mike, I also believe we need to take great care to help each other find opportunities for adventure, exploration, excitement and connection in the real world. Thanks very much for your input!

      Posted on by Kevin (Author)

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