The Restart Addiction Center is nondescript by design. The modest, five-acre compound, just a short drive from Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, is not marked by any signs. The main house is set far back on a private drive. With wide lawns, a communal dining room and an away-from-it-all atmosphere, Restart resembles hundreds of similar retreats where people escape their everyday lives and work to re-center themselves.
But Restart’s clients are not working out drug or alcohol issues. Restart is the first Internet addiction treatment center in the United States. And, if current research on the issue is any indication, it’s the first of many.
When I arrive at Restart, a delegation from the Chinese government has just left. Hilarie Cash, psychotherapist and Restart co-founder, explains that Internet addiction is a growing problem for China. The delegation came on a fact-finding mission. "They’re very worried right now,” says Cash. “Whatever they’re doing isn’t working, and the situation is getting worse.”
Many professionals in the psychology community remain skeptical about whether so-called Internet Use Disorder (IUD) is real. Maybe Internet overuse is simply a symptom of other problems, such as social anxiety, agoraphobia or depression. For those who subscribe to its existence, however, IUD is a mental health epidemic unlike any the world has ever seen.
While not officially recognized by the American psychological community, some regions of Asia have already deemed IUD a major threat to their societies. Young people are losing complete interest in school and work, they believe, and reports of parents neglecting their children and teenagers becoming violent when separated from their tech are starting to appear in the press.
In South Korea, Internet addiction has been declared a “public health crisis.” Pre-K and high schools teach the dangers of Internet overuse, and the government has opened treatment centers for the condition. This month the Japanese government released a study claiming that nearly 1 in 10 junior-high and high-school students are “pathologically” addicted to the Internet. China labeled Internet addiction an official disorder in 2008, before smartphones even took off. Since then, a cottage industry of “Internet boot camps” has sprung up in the country, where teens are forcibly divorced from the Net.
Cash recaps her discussion with the Chinese as we tour the outside of the Restart facility. “The boot camps aren’t fixing things,” she says, passing Restart’s chicken coop, where patients tend to the chickens as a way to learn more about responsibility. “They want to hear about our different approach.”
To hear Cash tell it, some parts of Asia were primed for this sort of addiction. In South Korea, Samsung’s home country, more than 90 percent of homes have high-speed internet. Smartphone ownership is far higher in Asia than in the U.S. and in many of these countries, notes Cash, “there’s less for young people to do than in America.” Cash believes that Internet overuse in the U.S. may rival the problem in Asian countries someday. According to some experts, it already is a real issue, growing by the year and hiding in plain sight.
When two current Restart residents pass Cash and me on their way back to the main house, I ask them why they’re there. “I’d just waste so much time on the Internet,” says the college-aged guy with shaggy hair and wire rim glasses. “I’d just be reading stuff and watching Netflix and just cruising around on it all day. I couldn’t get anything done. ”
”When people leave here, they can’t avoid the Internet forever,” explains Cash. “It’s always going to be there. You just have to find a way to make it less central to your life.”
A Mainstream Addiction?
Internet addiction is usually seen as a problem for video gamers, those social recluses, mostly male, who disappear into fantasy lands like World of Warcraft for days on end.
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