Internet addiction has been described as “the illness of the future.” It’s easy to see why: more and more it seems like people in the modern world are perpetually glued to smartphones, laptops and tablets, stuck in the digital world at the expense of the real one. The social lure of the Internet and our brain’s drug-like response to the instant gratification provided by online communication mean that Internet addiction is a very real problem.
However, it’s also attracted a lot of attention in the media, and the furor surrounding it has led to the proliferation of specialized treatment centers in the absence of detailed understanding. The addiction itself is one problem, but one that gets a lot less attention is how treatment programs for it are currently unregulated, opening the door to a whole host of problems.
The Rise of Internet Addiction Treatment
The U.S. is actually quite a late-comer to Internet addiction treatment. The first centers opened in China in 2004 and in Korea shortly after, with Tao Ran’s initial Chinese program operating out of a military hospital. This set the tone for Internet addiction treatment, with Korea continuing the trend with boot camp-style programs. In Korea, Internet addiction is an especially widespread issue, with online gaming serving as a national sport and Internet cafes as social hubs for young people in particular. Because of this, it’s not surprising that the condition was first addressed in Asia.
The first U.S.-based Internet addiction treatment program (reSTART) was established in 2009, but it wasn’t until 2013 that condition was first mentioned in the appendix of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM). Internet addiction rehabilitation centers are now becoming more popular in the U.S., and many existing treatment providers are also offering Internet addiction-specific programs to meet the growing demand. Many of these programs have a focus on troubled teens, and reSTART has since developed its own youth program too but, as with all addictions, it can strike at any age.
The Lesson from China
There are hundreds of residential Internet addiction treatment programs in China, and many of these follow legitimate practices. Tao Ran’s own program (the first in China) was featured in the documentary “Web Junkies,” and shows the positive work that can be performed at such centers. Ran himself has a master’s degree in medicine, but not everybody who operates these programs in China is so well-qualified.
Like in the U.S., parents in China are worried about their kids’ extensive use of the Internet, and are eager to pay anybody offering treatment, even if it comes in the form of unlicensed electrotherapy or outright abuse. There have been two widely reported deaths at these less than reputable centers. The first occurred in 2009, where 15-year-old Deng Senshan was beaten to death at a treatment center, and even though this led to guidelines for banning physical punishment (as well as pointless surgeries and other dangerous interventions) at the centers, another virtually identical incident followed the next year.
Lack of Regulation in the U.S.
We may be inclined to think that such incidents wouldn’t occur in the U.S., but there are many boot camp-style programs being set up all around the country dedicated to troubled teens, and some have extreme approaches. As one example, “escort services” (more like private bodyguard-initiated kidnappings) are being used to take teens to such programs, often waking them in the middle of the night and using handcuffs to restrain them. When they arrive, along with the risk that comes with the wide variation in treatment style used, they risk being involved in a case of abuse. In 2005, 33 states had 1,600 staff members or more employed in these residential programs who were involved in cases of abuse.
It seems that regulation is a necessity to ensure that concerned parents don’t send their children somewhere ineffective or dangerous. However, when a bill was introduced to Congress to pursue this goal in 2013, it only reached the committee stage. The documentary film “Kidnapped for Christ” aims to draw some attention to the dangers of the “troubled teen” industry sweeping the U.S., and it seems only a matter of time before regulation takes place.
Does Korea Have the Best Approach?
Many other countries are just getting involved with Internet addiction treatment much like the U.S., but Korea’s attempt to help their own addicted teenagers may offer the most successful model to date. The government runs the treatment programs, ensuring a consistent approach not incorporating counter-indicated or downright dangerous treatment methodologies, and taxpayer-funded counseling is available. In addition, education about the dangers of Internet addiction starts in preschool and runs right through to high school graduation.
Korea has an amplified version of the problem, and elements of their approach may not translate directly to the U.S., but the core message is essential. Parents are eager to get their kids into treatment and we need to make sure they aren’t sold a “snake oil” program, particularly one dependent on barbaric practices. Government regulation of providers is vital, and much like drug education has been used in schools, Internet addiction education should be a regularly revisited issue. Korea may have a bigger problem with Internet addiction right now, but it’s just a window into our future if we don’t head off the problem while we can.
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