Facebook rehab:
Obsessive use of the internet is changing the way people communicate and interact – even the way our brains function.
by Renee Lewis, Aljazeera.com

Almost a year ago in Korea, an infant starved to death while her parents obsessively played an online game in which they cared for a virtual baby instead of their real-life daughter.

Examples such as this indicate there are phenomenal social changes occurring due to increasing use of the internet – and in step with these new social and health problems, internet rehabilitation clinics are appearing all around the globe.

“I don’t think anyone could have designed a more addictive device than the internet,” said Dr Nahmeldeen al-Falahe, a consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital in the UK.

A study carried out by the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (ICMPA) named “24 hours unplugged”  followed students at the University of Maryland as they went without any form of digital media including internet, social media, phones and music – for one day.

According to the study, the most difficult form of media for the students to give up was the mobile phone – specifically the smart phone. “It’s like the Swiss army knife of the mobile phone. You can do everything on it and its available 24/7,” said Susan Moeller, director of the IMCPA.

“Not only did they rhetorically use the words addiction and withdrawals … they followed those comments by giving a more specific physical manifestation that made us say: ‘Oh, when they say addiction, they mean addiction: as in drug or alcohol addiction’,” said Moeller.

While disconnected, students complained of feeling depressed, lonely, bored and less focused. They also complained of physical withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, feeling fidgety and hearing phantom ringing.

Yet even students who hated the experiment said they liked certain aspects of it. They liked having an excuse for not keeping up with the media or not responding to every message.

Facebook rehab?
In reaction to this new phenomenon, the first internet addiction rehab clinic in the US, reStart, has opened in the state of Washington. The clinic works mainly with young adults who have lost control of their internet, gaming, pornography or social media usage.

“In [the] detox period, they are anxious and unhappy. But by the end of the three weeks, the brain begins to put back the neurotransmitters for dopamine and they start to relax and feel better, happier,” Hilarie Cash, executive director of reStart said.

According to psychologists at the clinic, the treatment focuses on teaching meditation and mindfulness, going on hikes and being physically active as well as teaching basic life skills the patients often lack.

“Before they leave, they have to write a life balance plan that includes their goals, how they are going to manage technology, how much time online they will allow themselves, how they will be held accountable and what to do if they relapse,” said Cash.

Another clinic, the Priory Hospital Roehampton in the UK, has a rehab program consisting of three parts: cognitive behavioural therapy, psychodynamic psychotherapy and social behaviour adjustments.

“The first thing patients ask when they are admitted, is: ‘Can we bring our computers with us?’,” said al-Falahe.

“We try to get them to replace internet addiction with another behaviour, whether its social activities, art [or] sports,” said al-Falahe. “If we discharge them without replacing the behaviour, they will go back to it.”

Ironically, online clinics have also been created. A website called FaceAnonymous takes a different approach to treatment, and was created by two men who recognised a problem in their own lives.

“We thought we should do something to make our internet usage healthier,” explained Siavosh Arasteh, who founded the Switzerland-based FaceAnonymous with Dan Penguine.

They built a public spreadsheet and posted it to their website so that people could track their Facebook access.

“We didn’t resist the idea of putting a ‘like’ button on the website. And since launching we have had more than 3,000 ‘likes’,” said Arasteh.

Philip Tam, a psychiatrist and president of Network for Internet Investigation and Research Australia (NIRRA), says he doubts that internet addiction is amental disorder in and of itself. Tam believes it is an expression of much deeper problems – more of an example of the “‘endpoint behaviour’ of a lot of underlying complex issues”. In that way, obsessive use of the internet is an attempt to escape those issues.

Tam says in order for treatment of internet addiction to be successful, it must address the “underlying cause – often depression, anxiety, social isolation, bullying, ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder], etc”.

“Only in extreme cases does the client need to be ‘admitted’ to a special facility. South Korea and Japan were the first countries in the world to open government-supported clinics to treat young people with internet addiction.”…