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.”