‘Tech ad­dicts’ are seek­ing so­lace in 12 steps, re­hab

The Standard Journal - - ENTERTAINM­ENT - By Martha Irvine AP Na­tional Writer

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.

/ AP-Martha Irvine

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.

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