‘Tech ad­dicts’ re­boot in re­hab

Spe­cial treat­ment be­ing ap­plied to a mod­ern mal­ady

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS - By Martha Irvine

BELLEVUE, Wash. — We like to say we’re ad­dicted to our phones or an app or some new show on a stream­ing video ser­vice.

But for some peo­ple, tech gets in the way of daily func­tion­ing and self-care. We’re talk­ing flunk-your­classes, can’t-find-a-job, live-in-a-dark-hole kinds of prob­lems, with de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety and some­times sui­ci­dal thoughts part of the mix.

Sub­ur­ban Seat­tle, a ma­jor tech cen­ter, has be­come a hub for help for so-called “tech ad­dicts,” with res­i­den­tial re­hab, psy­chol­o­gists who spe­cial­ize in such treat­ment and 12-step meet­ings.

“The drugs of old are now repack­aged. We have a new foe,” Cosette Rae says of the bar­rage of tech. A for­mer de­vel­oper in the tech world, she heads a Seat­tle area re­hab cen­ter called reSTART Life, one of the few res­i­den­tial pro­grams in the na­tion spe­cial­iz­ing in tech ad­dic­tion.

Use of that word — ad­dic­tion — when it comes to de­vices, on­line con­tent and the like is still de­bated in the men­tal health world. But many prac­ti­tion­ers agree that tech use is in­creas­ingly in­ter­twined with the prob­lems of those seek­ing help.

An Amer­i­can Academy of Pe­di­atrics re­view of world­wide re­search found that ex­ces­sive use of video games alone is a se­ri­ous prob­lem for as many as 9 per­cent of young peo­ple. This sum­mer, the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion also added “gam­ing dis­or­der” to its list of af­flic­tions. A sim­i­lar di­ag­no­sis is be­ing con­sid­ered in the United States.

It can be a taboo sub­ject in an in­dus­try that fre­quently faces crit­i­cism for us­ing “per­sua­sive de­sign,” in­ten­tion­ally har­ness­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal con­cepts to make tech all the more en­tic­ing.

One 27-year-old man, found through a 12-step pro­gram for tech ad­dicts, works in the very in­dus­try that ped­dles the games, videos and other on­line con­tent that has long been his vice. He does cloud main­te­nance for a sub­ur­ban Seat­tle tech com­pany and con­stantly finds him­self fend­ing off temp­ta­tion.

“I’m like an al­co­holic work­ing at a bar,” he laments. He spoke on the con­di­tion that he not be iden­ti­fied, fear­ing he might harm his ca­reer in an in­dus­try he’s long loved.

As a tod­dler, he sat on his dad’s lap in their Seat­tle area home as they played sim­ple video games on a Mac Clas­sic II com­puter. By early el­e­men­tary school, he got his first Su­per Nin­tendo sys­tem and spent hours play­ing Yoshi’s Story, a game where the main char­ac­ter searched for “lucky fruit.”

As he grew, so did one of the world’s ma­jor tech hubs. Led by Mi­crosoft, it rose from the non­de­script sub­ur­ban land­scape and farm fields here, just a short drive from the home he still shares with his mom, who split from her hus­band when their only child was 11.

As a teen, he took an in­ter­est in mu­sic and act­ing but re­calls how play­ing games in­creas­ingly be­came a way to es­cape life. “I go on­line in­stead of deal­ing with my feel­ings,” he says.

He’d been see­ing a ther­a­pist for de­pres­sion and se­vere so­cial anx­i­ety. But at­tend­ing col­lege out of state al­lowed more free­dom and less struc­ture, so he spent even more time on­line. His grades plum­meted, forc­ing him to change ma­jors, from en­gi­neer­ing to busi­ness.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing in 2016 and mov­ing home, he’d go to a nearby restau­rant or the li­brary to use the Wi-Fi, claim­ing he was look­ing for a job but hav­ing no luck.

In­stead, he was spend­ing hours on Red­dit, an on­line fo­rum where peo­ple share news and com­ments, or view­ing YouTube videos. Some­times, he watched on­line porn.

Oth­ers who at­tend a 12step meet­ing of the In­ter­net & Tech Ad­dic­tion Anony­mous know the strug­gle.

“I had to be con­vinced that this was a ‘thing,’ ” says Walker, a 19-year-old from Washington whose par­ents in­sisted he get help af­ter video gam­ing trashed his first se­mes­ter of col­lege. He agreed to speak only if iden­ti­fied by first name, as re­quired by the 12-step tenets.

Help is found at fa­cil­i­ties like reSTART. Clients “detox” from tech at a se­cluded ranch and move on to a group home.

They com­mit to eat­ing well and reg­u­lar sleep and ex­er­cise. They find jobs, and many even­tu­ally re­turn to col­lege. They also make “bot­tom line” prom­ises to give up video games or any other prob­lem con­tent, as well as drugs and al­co­hol, if those are is­sues. They use mon­i­tored smart­phones with lim­ited func­tion — calls, texts and emails and ac­cess to maps.

The young tech worker didn’t go to reSTART. But he, too, has apps on his phone that send re­ports about what he’s view­ing to his 12-step spon­sor, a fel­low tech ad­dict named Char­lie, a 30-year-old reSTART grad­u­ate.

At home, the young man also per­suaded his mom to get rid of Wi-Fi to lessen the temp­ta­tion.

He still re­lapses ev­ery cou­ple months, of­ten when he’s tired or up­set or very bored. He tells him­self that his prob­lem isn’t as bad as other tech ad­dicts.

“Then,” the young man says, “I dis­cover very quickly that I am ac­tu­ally an ad­dict, and I do need to do this.”

Hav­ing Char­lie to lean on helps. “He’s a role model,” he says.

“He has a place of his own. He has a dog. He has friends.”

That’s what he wants for him­self.

MARTHA IRVINE/AP

A self-de­scribed tech ad­dict stands in front of a video game store at a mall in Everett, Wash.

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