This is a transcript of the podcast Distraction, your survival guide to our crazy-busy, ever-connected modern world hosted by Dr. Edward Hallowell, ADHD expert. Dr. Hallowell talks with guest, Charlie, about his struggle with having an online gaming addiction.
Episode 11: The Dangers of Internet Addiction
Speaker 1: People laugh about it. Get off the computer. Stop watching porn. There’s jokes. It’s really not a joke when it really completely ruins your life.
DR. HALLOWELL: Hello. Welcome to Distraction. I’m Dr. Ned Hallowell. Before we begin, I want to give you a quick heads up. There’s some explicit language in today’s show. If you’re listening with children in the car, you may want to listen to this one later. The topic today is internet addiction. Most of us use the internet all the time to check our email, Google something and so forth. Today’s show is not about moderation though. Today’s show is about becoming addicted. Now this is a completely new addiction, never existed before in human history. Doctors are treating countless patients for it but don’t even have the diagnostic code for it yet. The new diagnostic and statistical manual of the so called DSM-5 is introducing a very end of it called internet gaming but it goes way beyond internet gaming.
This is people who simply can’t go more than a minute or two without being online, without checking their email or sending a text. The disguised voice you just heard at the top of the show is an anonymous woman who wanted to share her struggle. Her husband is addicted to the internet. You’re going to hear her powerful story in just a moment. First we’re going to hear from someone who experienced it firsthand.
Gaming Addict Shares His Story
Charlie: My name is Charlie. I’m 27 years old and I’m a gaming addict. My addiction started way, way back when I was very little. I have a brother that’s 4 years older than me. When we were young, you pretended to be a very big boy. I noticed very early on though that I could basically isolate a computer or a Nintendo and he wouldn’t bug me when I was doing that.
As I got older, whenever I started to get bored, whenever I needed to just get away from it, I would go to gaming. That continued to escalate as I got older to start including any issue I was dealing with. Was I stressed out because I had homework during high school, for finals coming up at college, everything made me go game. I’ll be gaming anywhere from 8 to 16 hours a day. Honestly, it’s ruined my life because I couldn’t focus on anything else.
About July of last year, I sunk into a really, really deep depression. I stopped doing anything but gaming. After that point, I was gaming 12 to 16 hours a day. I recognize what I was doing and I knew what the impact gaming was having. I hated myself because of it. When I moved to Virginia and took up real estate, the closest thing to a very dangerous situation I ever got to was about a year ago roughly after I realized the state that my life was really in. I wasn’t accomplishing my goals. Like I said, I started hating myself for gaming. I had been prescribed anti-depressants before. At that point, I felt like I wasn’t worthy of taking them and so I stopped.
Stopping taking my meds combined with how much I hated myself for my gaming addiction and then the only skill that I had ever learned to deal with any of the emotions like that was to game. I would hate myself for gaming and then I would go game more so that I would stop hating myself for gaming until the moment came when I had to stop because I needed food or I was just too tired to stay awake anymore. I would have to stop gaming and then all of it would come rushing back.
At that point, I became incredibly desperate. I tried quitting gaming twice on my own and failed both times. I felt completely hopeless and started to plan suicide. I had no idea how to get out of the cycle that I had built in my life. I had a very well flushed out plan for how I was going to make it happen. When and the year I was going to do it.
Found a Resource to Help With His Addiction
I got really lucky when my family came and visited. It was at just the right moment for them to see exactly what the state of my apartment was, because it was being totally ignored. To see just how unhappy I really was and they stepped in and confronted me about, “Hey. What’s going on here? Clearly, something is not right.” That was actually the catalyst that put me into reSTART and do in-patient therapy. The biggest thing that I try and remind people that I talked to you about, internet and technology addiction even more so than just gaming addiction is that it’s absolutely everywhere. There are way more people that suffer from a technology addiction than will ever admit it. The biggest reason is that it’s normal.
It’s not at all uncommon to be walking around and see people completely buried in this smoke zone and pay no attention to what’s going on around that. Because it happens everywhere. People think that there’s nothing wrong with that. Just because it’s normal doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s healthy.
I always advise people to just be really conscious of how much time it is that you’re spending on a screen rather than out doing something with people. Check and see even when you are with other people, you still find you’re not there because you have to keep an eye on your cellphone because so and so may be calling or texting and you have to check your email for work and you’re not actually paying attention to the people you just invited out to dinner. It’s a subtle, sneaky disease that will come up without you having any idea that it’s coming.
DR. HALLOWELL: Unfortunately, this true-life gaming story is not a unique one. This Thursday, we will release another mini episode with another young man, Ryan, who went through the same recovery program as Charlie. Wait until you hear how old he is. My thanks to the folks at reSTART and their internet addiction recovery program who helped us connect with both of these men. This is a wonderful resource. I was talking to a woman just yesterday whose son was clearly addicted to electronics and had gone to a psychiatrist, who laughed at her and said, “There’s no such thing as internet addiction.” Well unfortunately, the mental health professionals out there haven’t caught up with the times. A lot of them don’t know of the resources like reSTART. Save it in case you encounter someone with an internet or gaming addiction problem.
Statistics and Research
Studies show that between 6 to 10 percent of the population are addicted to the internet. This time spent in front of a computer has a variety of detrimental health effects from decreased fitness to spending less time on more valuable activities, to spending time with family and friends. People are beginning to isolate themselves from others, which could have very detrimental psychological effects. It’s quite a paradox. We’re collecting electronically but disconnecting interpersonally. Another study found that heavy internet use leads to increased depression and bipolar disorder. It also leads to the proliferation of secrets. In one study, 9 percent of people admitted to hiding their internet use from their bosses, friends or family. Why? People admitted using the internet as an escape from their problems.
Still research shows that people aren’t exactly enjoying spending all that time online. More than 12 percent of the people surveyed said they were online longer than they intended to be and they wanted to cut back. Isn’t it strange? They’re staying online but not wanting to be there. That’s what an addiction is all about. While an internet addiction can affect anyone, there’s a particular age group more vulnerable than the others. According to Stanford University, 73 percent of those addicted to the internet are between just 13 and 17 years old. Of course, the addict isn’t the only one affected. It can destroy relationships. What a paradox that is because you’re ostensibly connecting by being online but in fact, you’re disconnecting from the people who matter most to you. This is what is so pernicious and insidious about this newest form of addiction.
Imagine you’re about to start a family but then discover your husband was hiding something. One woman who agreed to speak with us only on the condition that she’d be anonymous discovered her husband’s secret obsession while she was pregnant. Her voice has been altered.
Online Gaming Ruined My Marriage
Female Speaker 2: Before I was married, while I was dating, I didn’t know he was into online games and things like that. He might spend a few hours at night with me but when I go to bed, he stays up because he’s then going to be on the computer all night. “Oh, my God.” I thought it was normal stuff. He’s going to play his games. I’m going to bitch about the fact that he never comes to bed. First, it was normal. It didn’t bother me at all because he didn’t play it all the time. It got worse.
More than once, I can remember trying different tactics to get him to stop and spend some time with me. It got to the point where I was just plain out nasty. I can remember specifically one-night grabbing pillows and blankets and throwing at him and saying, “I hope you have fun sleeping with your stupid game.” Over the weekends, I’d be like, “Take a shower.”
There was one time where I was giving him a hard time. He got so angry he stood up and he took his fist and he banged on the desk. It broke the keyboard shelf. I got mad and I went and left for hours and hours. I cooled off and came back and he says he’s sorry. He gets off of gaming for a day or two and then he slipped back on. His dad got sick. That probably coincided with him playing more. His dad passed away. He was playing more. I thought it was normal. You want to give somebody some space because of course, everyone goes through things differently. Next thing you know, we’re well beyond that. It’s gotten worse. We’re engaged and you’re stuck. I’m wondering am I even making the right decision here because this isn’t stopping?
Gaming Addiction Turned Into Internet Addiction
The gaming stopped but other things started. It was message boards. It was Facebook. It was online shopping. It was hours and hours of online stuff and porn. It was anything and everything that you could get online and absorb, he would do.
What I learned overtime, specifically porn sites and things like that are coded or named different names. If you click on it, it’s going to take you to a totally different type of site. Why does everything have to be in secret? That’s when you start to really go there’s a serious problem if he’s hiding this from me. He started buying things and so then I found that he had another bank account and was having about 40% of his check directly deposited into a bank account I knew nothing about so that he could fulfill his online shopping habits. I can’t even say that it’s just one thing he used, like a game or he used porn. It was the whole internet. It was anything.
The first time I ended up kicking him out of the house when my daughter was 3 months old. I found that he had a Facebook page with a fake name. His relationship status was it’s complicated. I was like, “Are you fucking kidding me?” I ended up waking him up at 2:30 in the morning going, “Are you kidding me? Look at this. There’s nothing fucking complicated. You have a ring on your finger. That’s not complicated. That’s called marriage.” I kicked him out of the house. He was pretending to be another person and having this online life. I’m sure there’s so much more that he did that I have no idea about. He went to see a special doctor and ended up being diagnosed with ADHD and depression. We thought, “Okay. Maybe this has something to do with your need to focus on the internet.”
The reality is, is he was only shifting things around and trying to figure out how to hide it from me. Internet addiction seems like the lines are really blurry that people can easily get out of it. That’s not a real thing. It’s totally a real thing, man. It’s embarrassing. My husband doesn’t want to spend any time with me. He’d rather be on a computer. You don’t want to say that. If you ask me how I feel, I would say I don’t like thinking about it or going back there. Thinking about what it was like then. I think it probably happens a lot more than people think. They think that there’s something wrong. That’s what it is. You are really being abandoned by your spouse when they are addicted to the internet. You’re left behind with all the responsibilities, left handling everything.
Emotionally, you’re going to be there. Yeah. It’s terrible. It’s hard. I’m sorry. My advice is open up, talk about it. I think that there’s a lot of people out there. I just don’t think they talk about it. Let people know what’s going on in your life. There are people around that could probably help you.
DR. HALLOWELL: My heartfelt thanks to our guests for talking with us. In case you’re wondering, their marriage did end in divorce. It was deeply painful for her. It took a lot of courage for her to come on and relive her story. We and I personally thank her very, very much.
Why the Internet Can Be A Problematic Addiction
Dr. Greenfield: 50 percent of all divorces involve digital technology use and abuse of some sort.
DR. HALLOWELL: That was Dr. David Greenfield. He’s the founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. Back in the 1990s, Dr. Greenfield was one of the first to recognize that the internet was going to be a problem for some people. Much like the temptation of drugs and alcohol can be.
Dr. Greenfield: Back in the mid to late 1990s, when the internet was really starting to heat up, I like many people noticed that when I went online, I felt pretty captivated. This was back when there wasn’t much going on online. The experience of being online just seemed to be very time distorting, very distracting, very dissociative among other things. I think there was some mood altering aspects, but we have no research whatsoever at that time. I went ahead and did a study where we looked at about 18,000 people. We looked at their internet use habits. This is again back in the late 90s so the internet was very different. This is when everybody was doing dial-up. We certainly didn’t have Wi-Fi and the smart phone didn’t even exist.
Even then, we found that a large percentage of people were experiencing use patterns that were very consistent with other compulsive or addictive behaviors and/or substance use.
DR. HALLOWELL: What kind of people come to you looking for help?
Dr. Greenfield: The people I see of course are the people who realize it’s gotten to a point where it’s really interfering with their lives. It’s impacted their school work or their work or their legal status or relationship or health in some way. They’ve been in an accident or God forbid they caused an accident. The average person who is using it too much, which is probably most of us, they’re not going to come see me. We have to find other ways to reach the masses with regard to the technology. Just stand on a line in a bank or anywhere.
The Neurobiology of Addiction
Dr. Greenfield: Nobody can be present without a dose of distraction that they’re using with their devices. Smartphones are really the hypodermic of choice at this point because they’re not only a portal to the internet but to everything on it, through social media and Google and all the other platforms. They supply notifications, and we know from basic neurobiology of addiction that the anticipation of a reward is actually quite elevating of dopamine. People actually look forward to the distraction that they’re going to get and that hit they’re going to get. You have to take control over the technology because left to its own devices, no pun intended, the technology will take control of you.
Turn off or limit your cell phone notifications because what we know is that hit you get from the expectancy of getting that message or that update or that email or that text or that Instagram shot is what keeps people checking it. Essentially, what the smartphone becomes is the world’s smallest slot machine. You keep checking it because every once in a while, something good shows up or something important. That keeps you impacted over and over and over again.
Setting up the notifications can help because then you’re only going to check it when you need to check it, as opposed to when it wants you to check it. The other thing you can do is have text-free days. Have a day where you leave it on or leave it off. Leave it in your car. I will purposely leave it. If I’m going out to do an errand, I will actually leave the phone and not take it with me. Believe me, I actually feel some withdrawal when I do that.
DR. HALLOWELL: It’s interesting because to do this interview with you, I left my smartphone in another room. Normally, when I’m sitting here doing these interviews, I have it right next to me.
Dr. Greenfield: There you go.
DR HALLOWELL: When I noticed I didn’t have it with me, I felt a twinge of discomfort. Now I’m really glad I don’t have it next to me.
Dr. Greenfield: It’s distracting.
DR. HALLOWELL: Yes. Also, you’ll discover that it’s not so bad. In fact, it’s nice not having it with you.
Dr. Greenfield: You can satisfy the time during the day that you’re going to check your phone once an hour. You can leave the ringer on for a phone call. Nobody uses these things for phone calls anymore. They use them for other things. The big thing you’ll hear is, “Well, what happens if there’s an emergency?” “Well, if it’s an emergency, I suppose people could call you.”
DR. HALLOWELL: I’m so glad to have you as a friend and colleague. You really are a pioneer in the field.
Dr. Greenfield: Thank you for having me.
DR. HALLOWELL: One of the world’s leading experts, Dr. David Greenfield. It’s been a real pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much for coming on.
Dr. Greenfield: It’s a pleasure to talk with you as well.
DR. HALLOWELL: If you would like to get in touch with Dr. Greenfield, we’ll put a link to his website, which is virtual-addiction.com on our website.
Here’s an idea that would definitely fall into the category of non-traditional treatment. Imagine being prescribed an illegal drug to kick your internet habit. It’s not such a radical idea. In fact, Baltimore author and writer, Baynard Woods tried it. He didn’t come up with the idea himself. He read about James Fadiman’s work. Fadiman has been studying psychedelic drugs including LSD since the 1960’s. He claims that micro doses can improve focus.
Here’s what he said. “The focus wasn’t like the amphetamine compulsion that comes with Ritalin or Adderall. It couldn’t be satisfied by cleaning the floor or digitally screaming at a stranger on Facebook. Instead, I found myself more deeply absorbed in that zone we all hope to be in where the doer and the deed dissolve together into the pleasure of pure work.” He goes on to say, “The most remarkable effect of the micro dose, which I noticed on the first day was that it broke or significantly disrupted my addiction to the internet.” The curiosity and experimental nature of this man, I would not advice you all to start taking LSD to gain focus. First of all, it’s not legal. Second of all, we need a lot more research because there certainly can be extremely negative consequences to experimenting with LSD.
At the same time, I hope the research does continue because these psychedelic substances may turn out to have significantly therapeutic effects. We’re just not there yet. I’m afraid I can’t recommend that you try that. Nonetheless, it’s fun to bring these non-traditional interventions to your attention.
Okay. We want to help. Did something in this show grab you? Do you know someone or you yourself who are wrestling with this problem because gazillions of people are? Don’t feel alone. This is, and short of addiction, just the habituation problem where you know you’re doing it too much. Get on that before it runs away from you, before you start losing time at work or losing friends and relationships. This is an insidious process like most bad habits. Abstinence is not an option.
Internet Tech Addiction Anonymous
We have to learn how to use our electronics moderately because we really can’t abstain from them. Even the family or friends of the person whose addicted need advice. Here’s another suggestion. ITAA or Internet Tech Addiction Anonymous. Can you believe that exists? 20 years ago, even 10 years ago, it wouldn’t have existed. This is modeled on a 12-step program similar to what AA is. You can reach them through a link on our website, netaddictionanon.org. Again, I just think it’s remarkable and wonderful that these resources have grown up. I also marvel at the power of electronics to command us to the point of actually leading to an addiction. If you have suggestions on how to limit your time online, we’d love for you to share them with us. This is a problem we’re all grappling with and its new territory.
Please, if you’ve figured out a way to kick the habit, not kick it but moderate the habit, please email us at [email protected]. You can also use that email for questions, comments or other new show ideas that you’d like us to do. Distraction is produced by Collisions, the podcast division of CRN International Collisions, podcast for curious people. Well, that’s our show for today. We’re going to leave you on a positive note from Dr. David Greenfield.
Dr. Greenfield: Your listeners need to know that on the other side of that undistracted experience is connection, creativity, intimacy, productivity. These are all on the other side of that. I think this is neurobiology basically.
This is a transcript of the podcast Distraction, “The Dangers of Internet Addiction”. Distraction is available on iTunes.