The Rise of the Internet-Addiction Industry

Treatment centers are opening across the U.S., but mental-health experts still disagree on whether excessive time on the web qualifies as a disorder.

Ina Fassbender / Reuters

Recovery starts with detox and support groups. Or with workers in hazmat suits sealing away your electronic devices in containers marked “biohazard.” Or with a trip to a remote stretch of desert, where you’ll learn the skills needed to survive in the wild.

Welcome to the world of Internet-addiction treatment. Amid a tidal wave of fear that technology is taking over our lives, institutions promising to treat the problem of too much time spent online are cropping up across the country. Treatment caters to adolescents and adults, and ranges from the clinical to the unconventional: There are overnight hospital stays, digital-detox retreats, wilderness-therapy camps, and psychiatrists who prescribe medication and talk therapy.

Plenty of patients swear by Internet-addiction recovery programs, insisting that treatment can be life-changing—but for all its growing popularity, the rapidly emerging industry exists in a medical gray area. Internet addiction isn’t listed as an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and mental-health experts disagree over whether excessive attachment to technology should be considered an addiction at all, much less how to treat it.

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“This is the frontier. It’s a little like the wild, wild, west,” says Jason Calder, a clinical mental-health counselor and the director of the adolescent Internet-addiction recovery program at Outback Therapeutic Expeditions in Utah.

Outback gives the parents of prospective patients questionnaires to assess the severity of the situation and to identify any underlying mental-health conditions that might be driving their son or daughter to abuse technology. Red flags include changes in eating or sleeping patterns, as well as failed attempts to cut back on time spent online.

For at least some parents, the decision to send a child to Outback is a last resort. Getting a teenager to treatment can look and feel like staging an intervention. Griffin, a 16-year-old former patient whose last name has been withheld to protect his privacy, was abruptly awoken one night in his Orange County, California, home to find he was being sent away at that very moment. “I was really confused. I didn’t know where I was going,” he recalls. “They just said I was going to get better.”

Griffin was driven from his home to the airport, where he boarded a plane to Utah. Next, he was shuttled to Outback’s headquarters in Lehi. After passing a medical exam to make sure he was physically fit for treatment, Griffin was taken out into the desert.

Mental-health experts who say that Internet addiction exists are quick to point out that simply counting up the hours spent online is not enough for a diagnosis. Instead, they say, Internet use must significantly and adversely affect daily life—causing relationships, work, or health to suffer—to qualify as an addiction. Griffin’s mother Noelle, 43, says that before he went to Outback, he shunned friends and family and neglected school to play online video games for hours on end. Noelle says Griffin struggles with anxiety and depression, and believes her son turned to Internet gaming as a way to cope.

After what Noelle describes as unsuccessful attempts to get Griffin to cut back, she felt Outback was her only hope—but feared that if she told him he would be sent away, he might refuse to go. “It was a scary decision, but he desperately needed help,” Noelle explains. “I felt more safe at that point having him out in the middle of the wilderness with wild animals and in a tent than having him at home.”

Outback’s Internet-addiction recovery program is part mental-health retreat, part outdoor-adventure. It specializes in wilderness therapy and promises to promote self-reliance and self-discovery for technology-addicted teens. Patients learn to build fires, tie knots, and construct shelters in the western Utah desert. Hikes happen often. Several times a week, licensed mental-health counselors convene individual and group therapy sessions where patients are encouraged to contemplate what might be driving them to use technology to excess. The program costs between $25,000 to $30,000.

Many people who seek out treatment for technology addiction—at Outback or any other program—do so because they, like Griffin, can’t seem to stop playing online video games. But recovery centers also take in individuals who suffer from a compulsive need to constantly check Facebook and Instagram, watch YouTube on loop, or read Reddit non-stop.

Giving up Internet gaming during a 44-day stay at Outback wasn’t Griffin’s only challenge. He had never been away from home without his parents before, or even gone camping. In the middle of the desert, he learned to cook food over an open fire and fend for himself.

Gradually, he adjusted. “It was a weird feeling. I was in the middle of nowhere and there was nothing I could do to get my computer,” he says. “Eventually, I realized I could live without it.”

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The Internet-addiction industry looks different around the world. Advocates for treatment say that East Asian countries are leading the way, while the U.S. lags behind—China and South Korea, for example, view Internet addiction as a public-health threat. But country-by-country comparisons are difficult, since diagnosis hinges on a set of cultural norms that vary from place to place. In the U.S., recovery centers often take their cues from substance-abuse and gambling-addiction treatment, and the path to recovery often starts with detox.

Chloe Mason, 19, is convinced that when she began her stay at the reSTART Center for Digital Technology Sustainability outside of Seattle, she went through withdrawal after her technology was taken away. “The first day, I was kind of numb. The second day I was very tired and by the third day and for two weeks after, I was agitated,” she recalls.  “You start to dream about it. You’re tired, you’re twitchy.”

The retreat center—located on five sprawling acres in Fall City, Washington—looks more like a vacation home than a clinic. Participants (the center doesn’t use the term “patient”) live at the retreat for eight to 12 weeks, attending off-site therapy sessions with licensed counselors and participating in support groups modeled after the 12-step recovery made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous. Animals, including a mini Australian shepherd named Dakota, are kept on the property for the purposes of pet therapy. An eight-week stay costs just over $30,000.

At reSTART, participants learn to think of their inclination for the Internet as an addiction much like any other. And to prep for a return to the outside world, they devise a plan to limit their use of the Internet, a sort of road map to avoid potential triggers and implement coping strategies. Other aspects of the stay are more mundane: They cook and clean for themselves, and room inspection takes place daily.

“There were definitely times when you got bored. But learning to deal with boredom is one of the best parts,” Mason says. “There will always be times when you get bored and want to distract yourself with technology. At a certain point, you need to learn to just sit still.”

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Things look different at Camp Grounded, a technology-free summer camp for adults. The camp doesn't advertise any kind of medical or mental-health credentials, but it still attracts plenty of people who believe they suffer from an unhealthy Internet addiction. Its promise, according to the Camp Grounded website: “No screens. No Filters. No Big Data. No agenda. No bullshit.” Campers aren’t allowed to use real names (instead they’re told to pick out a nickname), and they can’t talk about work.

The camp is owned and operated by Digital Detox, a limited-liability company with the trademarked slogan “Disconnect to reconnect.” The price of admission for an off-the-grid weekend is calculated on a sliding scale starting at $495. Camp Grounded started in Navarro, California, but has moved its California outpost to Mendocino. Due to popular demand, campsites have already opened in North Carolina and Texas, and more are forthcoming in New York and Washington.

Many of the activities are typical summer-camp fare. There’s archery, hiking, swimming, and arts and crafts. But it’s not uncommon for campers to talk about how they use technology, and whether and why they feel uncomfortable discarding their smartphones, iPads, and laptops, even if only for a few days.

“It’s almost like a cult,” says Tony Dimitri Peniche, a 29-year-old self-described serial entrepreneur living in Portland, Oregon, who took to Facebook to talk about how much he loved Camp Grounded after a recent off-the-grid weekend. “Not in a bad way—almost like a religious type of experience. It was amazing.”

Levi Felix, the 31-year-old CEO and co-founder of Digital Detox and the director of Camp Grounded, says he has mixed feelings about using the term “addiction” when talking about technology, but now believes the word can help spark conversations about the role technology plays in people’s lives. Using it, he says, “give[s] people permission to start talking about what’s happening.”

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Some mental-health experts caution that the claims of Internet-addiction recovery centers should be taken with a grain of salt. “The fact that we have treatment programs doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s really an addiction,” says Charles O’Brien, the founding director of the Center for Studies of Addiction at the University of Pennsylvania. “This is a free country. You can set up a program to treat anything you like, including possession by the devil or by space people.”

Naysayers also warn that that affixing the label “addiction” to excessive Internet use could lead to stigma, unnecessary medication, and a precedent where nearly any activity could be termed a pathology. “It’s a slippery slope. When you turn people’s passions and interests into mental disorders, you start to define what’s normal and what’s not,” says Allen Frances, a psychiatry professor emeritus at Duke University and the chair of the task force for the fourth revision of the DSM.

Still, as long as people believe technology is degrading their quality of life, demand for treatment is all but guaranteed to continue. And some prominent addiction experts believe it is only a matter of time before Internet addiction becomes a widely accepted diagnosis in the U.S., which would likely make treatment more accessible—most insurance companies currently won’t cover the cost of these expensive programs, placing them out of reach to many Americans who could potentially benefit from treatment.

Now, after Outback, Griffin is no longer allowed to have a desktop computer in his room. Currently a junior in high school, he’s trying to rebuild the friendships he lost as a result of all the time he spent locked inside playing games online. Noelle says that Griffin is “not out of the woods,” and worries constantly about relapse. But both she and her son believe that treatment helped.

“I still have anxiety at times, I still get nervous,” Griffin says. “But now I’m a lot more happy. I was not happy whatsoever at the time.”