They've come from all over the country to be cured of one of society's newest, and potentially most debilitating, ailments. After trying and failing to control their behavior, they've checked themselves into a cluster of gray-and-white buildings located off of an interstate parkway in rural Pennsylvania, 80 miles south of Buffalo, New York, in order to reclaim their lives.
Welcome to Internet rehab.
It's the first inpatient Internet addiction treatment center in the country, located in the Behavioral Health Services unit at Bradford Regional Medical Center in Pennsylvania.
Many of us have joked at one time or another about being addicted to our email, iPhone or Twitter account, but as technology has penetrated nearly every domain of our daily lives, these addictions are becoming more real -- and they're being recognized by mental health professionals.
Psychologist Dr. Kimberly Young has spent the past 18 years treating thousands of Americans who suffer from the very real, and increasingly common, affliction of being addicted to their digital devices. Young -- who founded the Center for Internet Addiction in 1995 and has written five books on the topic since then -- says she's seen the problem increasing significantly in recent years, with more and more people asking about treatment options.
In response to the overwhelming demand for Internet addiction treatment, Young created the 10-day inpatient treatment program, open to adults over the age of 18, which launched last week with 16 beds for patients and a full medical staff.
Young's program is founded in the principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy -- a form of talk therapy developed in the 1970s that focuses on a patient's thoughts and beliefs, rather than his or her actions -- complemented by special techniques and tools for Internet addicts to help them learn to interact with technology in healthier ways. Like many rehabilitation programs, the treatment starts with a full 72-hour detox, followed by a psychiatric evaluation. After the detox period, patients attend daily individual and group therapy sessions, educational classes, and family consultations, all while being gradually reintroduced to technology.
"It's like food addiction -- you're learning new ways of eating or new ways of using the Internet, rather than a full abstinence, 12-step program," Young tells The Huffington Post.
Generally associated with features of impulse-control disorders, Internet addiction takes many different forms: A condition can arise from excessive time spent on gambling online, pornography, social media, and even eBay addiction. Young has seen it all, but says that she most often deals with online gaming addictions. Still, there's no typical Internet addict -- just as with drugs or alcohol, addiction can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender or socioeconomic status.
"It could be anyone. It could be your grandmother, your 15-year-old son, your husband or wife," says Young. "Like any addiction, it affects all of us."
But where is the line between a teenager glued to a smartphone and a full-blown addiction requiring medical attention? Signs of a serious Internet addictive disorder are comparable to the symptoms of any other addiction, including lying about one's usage of technology, craving more time on the Internet, unsuccessful attempts to control behavior, and increasingly poor performance at school or work.
Young diagnoses Internet addiction with a comprehensive Internet Addiction Diagnostic Questionnaire that she developed using 20 questions (Do you feel restless, moody, depressed, or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop Internet use? Do you stay online longer than originally intended?) to assess attitudes and behaviors around Internet usage. A patient must also have a dual diagnosis with another psychiatric condition such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression or anxiety in order to be diagnosed with Internet Addiction Disorder.
Although the validity of Internet addiction as a legitimate mental health condition hasn't always been agreed upon, it's now being taken seriously by the mental health community, thanks in large part to Young's pioneering work in the field. The most recent volume of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-V), which consulted Young's expertise on the subject, listed "Internet Use Disorder" and Internet Gaming Disorder as subjects worthy of further study. Now that more unified, accepted diagnostic criteria for these conditions are emerging, it's likely that the conditions will be classified as clinical disorders in the next DSM revision, Young explains.
Other countries, mainly in Asia, have already begun taking serious measures to address growing rates of dependence on digital devices. In China, Taiwan and Korea, as much as 30 percent of the population may be experiencing problematic Internet use, according to the Center for Internet Addiction, and China's hospitals began opening special units for the treatment of Internet addiction in 2008, the Telegraph reports.
But even Internet users who may not have an addiction still frequently exhibit an unhealthy dependence on digital devices that could be interfering with their work, lives and relationships. The average smartphone user checks their device every six and a half minutes (that's 150 times a day) and 50 percent of people aged 18-29 say that they use their phone on the toilet, according to a recent HuffPost/YouGov poll. A 2012 study found that 66 percent of people are actually afraid to lose or be separated from their cell phone, while a University of Maryland study even found that college students forced to unplug from their devices for 24 hours experienced physical and psychological symptoms of withdrawal, similar to what drug addicts experience while trying to go "cold turkey," The Telegraph reports.
"Internet addiction opens up this debate of how much technology is enough? How young is it okay to start?" says Young.
Children today are using technology from the age of three, according to a recent UK survey, and the long-term implications of early exposure to technology could prove to be significant as they grow up. Among young adults, excessive technology use has been linked with heightened stress levels, anxiety and depression. But in the technology-saturated workplace, even adults would do well to monitor and control their usage.
“These forms of technology are as addictive as crack. Period. If you expose yourself to them continuously, they will pull you in the way a drug would -- continuously, even when you know it’s not serving you well," Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project and author of "The Way We Work Isn't Working," told The Huffington Post in July. "If that’s the case, you’ve got to move in and out of exposing yourself to them.”
This story appears in Issue 70 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, available Friday, Oct. 11 in the iTunes App store.
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