Isaac Vaisberg didn’t leave his apartment for five weeks. The doorman delivered his food, and he didn’t shower. He missed his law classes at American University in Washington, D.C., and 132 calls from his family. When he was playing video games—sometimes for as long as 20 to 30 hours—nothing else was important.
It wasn’t until his mom came from Miami to visit that Vaisberg broke his World of Warcraft binge to shower and clean his apartment, giving him the first opportunity he’d had in over a month to think. “It was such an empty feeling—I just didn’t want to hurt my parents anymore,” 21-year-old Vaisberg says. “I started screaming and I passed out in the bathtub.” The next day, on February 21, 2013, Vaisberg started rehab for video game addiction for the second time.
A Growing Problem
Video game addiction is just one variant under the larger umbrella of Internet addiction disorder (IAD), says Dr. Hilarie Cash, co-founder of the reSTART Internet Addiction Recovery Program in Washington state where Vaisberg sought treatment. Other types of Internet addiction include online shopping, pornography, gambling, social networking, texting, and general web surfing through websites like Google and YouTube. Although reSTART has only been in operation since 2009, Internet addiction has been a problem since as early as the mid-‘90s. “It was just the trickle before the flood, but now the flood is upon us,” Cash says.
The driving forces behind this flood are the developments in and changing attitudes toward Internet technology. “The things we’re using on computers are more interactive and lifelike than they ever were before—they offer a more believable escape,” says David Townes, a therapist at Catalyst Mental Health in Minneapolis. The established norm and increasing ubiquity of the Internet helps. In 1997, just 18 percent of households had access to the Internet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau; as of 2011, almost 72 percent did. “People born in the ‘90s have experienced a shift in parenting style,” Townes says. “Today enough adults have grown up playing video games and using the web that they put less parenting energy into reducing the effects of them.”
Just because the Internet is a widely accepted form of media doesn’t make it any less potent. According to the Pew Internet Project, 93 percent of Americans ages 12 to 29 go online, and as much as 36 percent of them go online several times a day, making millennials the age cohort most likely to spend time online. A 2010 study of undergraduates at a U.S. university published in the Journal of American College Health found that 99 percent of participants used the Internet daily, about half met the criteria for Internet abuse, and one-quarter qualified as Internet dependent.
Vaisberg’s first stint in rehab occurred only a year earlier, when he was 20 years old. After seven years of battling with his addiction and the anxiety it caused, his family intervened, sending him to the reSTART center where, quickly filled with confidence that he beat his addiction, he left before completing the program. “I felt like I was ready to tackle the world,” Vaisberg says.
Between the safe allure of video games and the lack of a support group Vaisberg had coming out of rehab, that feeling didn’t last long. “During the addiction, it’s fantastic. I had a lot of fun times,” Vaisberg says. “All these people wanted to play with me and I wasn’t getting that attention anywhere else.” Vaisberg lasted four months before relapsing into his five-week gaming bender.
“The things we’re using on computers are more interactive and lifelike than they ever were before—they offer a more believable escape.”
Self-medicating with the web
Although it sounds harmless compared to other addictions, Internet addiction has many similarities to alcoholism, says Dr. Jonathan Kandell, the director of the Center for Counseling and Consultation at the Universities at Shady Grove. “For people who struggle with interpersonal issues, the Internet is just like drinking to alleviate social anxiety,” he says. “If you use the Internet for escape, it’s not much different from being drunk all the time.”
Still, there is a fine line between Internet and drug abuse. Whereas some drug addicts or alcoholics don’t begin experimenting with drugs until around the age of 12 or 13, Cash says, Internet addicts essentially grow up with computer technology. And because video games and computer use are typically solitary activities, those who become addicted at an early age miss out on a key stage of building social skills. “In terms of identity development, it can be difficult to shift your identity as a gamer when it becomes so ingrained earlier in life,” Townes says.
Compared to his antisocial peers, Vaisberg is a rare case of an Internet addict. Having moved 10 to 15 times between his parents in Miami and Venezuela in his youth, Vaisberg developed social skills and charisma early on to help him adapt in each new environment. But then he started his sophomore year of high school. “I had a lot of trouble with classes and I wasn’t making a lot of friends, so I started gaming more,” Vaisberg says. “But it wasn’t about the games; it was about the people I met there.”
Escaping his problems at home only worsened the stress Vaisberg faced at school. “I was building up a ton of anxiety because gaming got in the way of me turning in homework. One day I started throwing up because I was so afraid to go to school after not doing homework for so long,” he says. Vaisberg still managed to graduate high school with a 4.0 GPA.
Road to Recovery
The principle behind Internet addiction has been around since B.F. Skinner first coined the term “operant conditioning” in 1938 and later published a study involving pigeons and food pellets in 1948. In Skinner’s study, pigeons were presented with a food hopper at irregular intervals. As their pecking became reinforced by food, the birds eventually began to peck even when food was not present. Although the pigeons had no control over when they received the food, they pecked because they associated that behavior with reward.
“This principle is at work in everything related to the Internet and texting,” Cash says. After sending a text message, for example, there is no way to know when a reward in the form of a response will come. But when it does, she says, “you’re rewarded enough that you keep doing it and doing it, and you lose hours in the process.” Thus, addiction is born.
At reSTART, recovering from Internet addiction is more about learning how to develop a healthy relationship with technology than avoiding it completely. “You can’t avoid the Internet like you can drugs and alcohol—it’s more like an eating disorder,” Cash says. The reSTART program teaches participants how to cope by focusing on building life skills, like cleaning, cooking, socializing with others, and using computers only for practical use.
After completing the 45-day intense detox phase of the reSTART program earlier this year, Vaisberg started the aftercare phase. For six months, he lived in an apartment with a roommate also in the program, attended 12-step meetings, and gradually reintroduced technology into his life.
Now that he has completed the program, Vaisberg intends to stay in Washington, where he has built a life working 50 hours a week as a personal trainer, studying psychology, and volunteering at reSTART. “I replaced video games with the things I didn’t have before, things I take pride in—relationships, friends, work, and a clean apartment,” Vaisberg says with a laugh. “I’m aware that I can’t do this by myself. Recovery is something you have to keep working on. But I’ve built a really full life here. I don’t have time to relapse.”
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