‘Tech addicts’ are seeking solace in 12 steps, rehab
BELLEVUE, Wash. — The young men sit in chairs in a circle in a small meeting room in suburban Seattle and introduce themselves before they speak. It is much like any other 12-step meeting — but with a twist.
“Hi, my name is,” each begins. Then something like, “and I’m an internet and tech addict.”
The eight who’ve gathered here are beset by a level of tech obsession that’s different than it is for those of us who like to say we’re addicted to our phones or an app or some new show on a streaming video service. For them, tech gets in the way of daily functioning and self-care. We’re talking flunkyour-classes, can’t-find-a-job, live-ina-dark-hole kinds of problems, with depression, anxiety and sometimes suicidal thoughts part of the mix.
There’s Christian, a 20-year-old college student from Wyoming who has a traumatic brain injury. His mom urged him to seek help because he was “medicating” his depression with video games and marijuana.
Seth, a 28-year-old from Minnesota, used video games and any number of things to try to numb his shame after a car he was driving crashed, seriously injuring his brother.
Wes, 21, an Eagle Scout and college student from Michigan, played video games 80 hours a week, only stopping to eat every two to three days. He lost 25 pounds and failed his classes.
Across town there is another young man who attended this meeting, before his work schedule changed — and his work places him squarely at risk of temptation.
He does cloud maintenance for a suburban Seattle tech company. For a self-described tech addict, this is like working in the lion’s den, laboring for the very industry that peddles the games, videos and other online content that long has been his vice.
“I’m like an alcoholic working at a bar,” the 27-year-old laments.
“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. That’s why the 27-year-old who works at the tech company spoke on condition that his identity not be revealed. He fears that speaking out could hurt his fledgling career.
“I stay in the tech industry because I truly believe that technology can help other people,” the young man says. He wants to do good.
But as his co-workers huddle nearby, talking excitedly about their latest video game exploits, he puts on his headphones, hoping to block the frequent topic of conversation in this tech-centric part of the world.
Even the computer screen in front of him could lead him astray. But he digs in, typing determinedly on his keyboard to refocus on the task at hand.
The demons are not easy to wrestle for this young man, who was born in 1991, the very year the World Wide Web went public.
As a toddler, he sat on his dad’s lap as they played simple video games on a Mac Classic II computer. Together in their Seattle area home, they browsed the internet on what was then a groundbreaking new service called Prodigy. The sound of the bouncy, then highpitched tones of the dial-up connection are etched in his memory.
By early elementary school, he got his first Super Nintendo system and fell in love with “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.
The boy dreamt of being part of this tech boom and, in eighth grade, wrote a note to himself. “I want to be a computer engineer,” it read.
Very bright and with a head full of facts and figures, he usually did well in school. He also took an interest in music and acting but recalls how playing games increasingly became a way to escape life — the pain he felt, for instance, when his parents divorced or when his first serious girlfriend broke his heart at age 14. That relationship still ranks as his longest.
“Hey, do you wanna go out?” friends would ask.
“No, man, I got plans. I can’t do it this weekend. Sorry,” was his typical response, if he answered at all.
“And then I’d just go play video games,” he says of his adolescent “dark days,” exacerbated by attention deficit disorder, depression and major social anxiety.
Even now, if he thinks he’s said something stupid to someone, his words are replaced with a verbal tick — “Tsst, tsst” — as he replays the conversation in his head.
“There’s always a catalyst and then it usually bubbles up these feelings of avoidance,” he says. “I go online instead of dealing with my feelings.”
He’d been seeing a therapist since his parents’ divorce. 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.
Eventually, he graduated in 2016 and moved home. Each day, 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.
Even now, his mom doesn’t know that he lied. “I still need to apologize for that,” he says, quietly.
Robel, an 18-year-old tech addict from California, leaves a barn after helping feed animals at the Rise Up Ranch outside rural Carnation, Wash. The ranch is a starting point for clients like Robel who come to reSTART Life, a residential program for adolescents and adults who have serious issues with excessive tech use, including video games. The organization, which began about a decade ago, also is adding outpatient services due to high demand.