Cincinnati: When Danny Reagan was 13, he began exhibiting signs of what doctors usually associate with drug addiction. He became agitated, secretive and withdrew from friends. He had quit baseball and Boy Scouts, and he stopped doing homework and showering.
But he was not using drugs. He was hooked on YouTube and video games, to the point where he could do nothing else. As doctors would confirm, he was addicted to his electronics.
Psychiatrists such as Young who have studied compulsive internet behaviour for decades are now seeing more cases, prompting a wave of new treatment programs to open across the United States. Mental health centers in Florida, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and other states are adding inpatient internet addiction treatment to their line of services.
Some sceptics view internet addiction as a false condition, contrived by teenagers who refuse to put away their smartphones, and the Reagans say they have had trouble explaining it to extended family. Medical experts in the US have begun taking internet addiction more seriously.
Neither the World Health Organization (WHO) nor the American Psychiatric Association recognises internet addiction as a disorder. Last year, however, the WHO recognised the more specific Gaming Disorder following years of research in China, South Korea and Taiwan, where doctors have called it a public health crisis.
Some online games and console manufacturers have advised gamers against playing to excess. YouTube has created a time monitoring tool to nudge viewers to take breaks from their screens as part of its parent company Google’s “digital wellbeing” initiative.
WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said internet addiction is the subject of “intensive research” and consideration for future classification. The American Psychiatric Association has labelled gaming disorder a “condition for further study.” “Whether it’s classified or not, people are presenting with these problems,” Tuell said. Tuell recalled one person whose addiction was so severe that the patient would defecate on himself rather than leave his electronics to use the bathroom.
Research on internet addiction may soon produce empirical results to meet medical classification standards, Tuell said, as psychologists have found evidence of a brain adaptation in teens, who compulsively play games and use the internet.
“It’s not a choice, it’s an actual disorder and a disease,” said Danny. “People who joke about it not being serious enough to be super official, it hurts me personally.”