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Are gadgets, and the Internet, actually addictive?

  • Story Highlights
  • Whether technology addiction is real is a current debate
  • More clinics and therapists are specializing in treatment of this addiciton
  • Some believe the debate is an ongoing one for every generation
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By Jonathan Mandell
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(CNN) -- When the users of BlackBerries could not send or receive e-mails for 11 hours in April because of a glitch in the system, hospital administrator Paul Levy pronounced it a "national disaster" because of all the BlackBerry "addicts" forced into withdrawal.

Technological gadgets have always fascinated many people, and the past decade has seen an explosion of personal technology.

Writing in his blog, Levy -- the president of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts -- proclaimed himself proud of the swift actions of his hospital.

"We set up our crisis center ... staffed by our Psychiatry Department," Levy wrote. "Cases of withdrawal were handled ... with a minimal use of antidepressant drugs." The one downside, he wrote, were the "damaged walls and broken windows" because of the "many devices ... vigorously thrown."

Levy was joking. There was no activity in his hospital as a result of the BlackBerry blackout, other than some whining from BlackBerry-obsessed colleagues.

But his satire could be said to be part of a serious current debate -- the debate over whether technology addiction, and especially Internet addiction, is a real mental disorder. At its annual conference last month, members of the American Medical Association considered a proposal to label excessive video and online game playing as an addiction, but decided to table it until further study.

It is common to take a comical approach to Americans' obsession with technological gadgets, and especially with the Internet. The very term "Internet addiction disorder" began as a joke on an Internet mailing list, a parody of psychiatric diagnoses coined a decade ago by Irving Goldberg, an Internet-savvy psychiatrist.

But had the 11-hour BlackBerry outage occurred six months earlier, Levy would surely not have thought it so funny. He was one of the device's 8 million subscribers. For years, he couldn't put it down.

"I was a 'Crackberry' addict," he says, using a common term intended only half facetiously. "I used it all the time." Knowing first-hand the result of such over-reliance -- "manners disappear ... relationships disappear" -- Levy late last year quit "BlackBerry cold turkey."

Levy uses the language of addiction to describe his former habit; that is not a coincidence.

"I'm not a doctor; I'm not an expert on addiction," says Levy (speaking on a regular cell phone). "But this certainly looks like an addiction. It has all the characteristics -- people who are away from it have a craving to get back to it; it interrupts normal social intercourse, etc."

Shortly after giving up his BlackBerry, Levy wrote on his blog that he has "discovered marvelous things. The sun rises in the morning and sets at night. ... People in meetings pay more attention to you if you pay more attention to them."

Others have less of a sense of humor about the effect of tech toys on their lives.

"I have had people call me who were concerned about their college-age child playing too much of a video game," says Michael Craig Miller, a staff psychiatrist at Levy's hospital, "or worried about their husband always having their laptop with them."

That the digital world has had some unforeseen casualties is difficult to dispute. A doctor writing in The New England Journal of Medicine in June reported the first case of "Wii-itis" -- intense physical pain resulting from playing the Wii video game system. Physicians are already familiar with Nintendinitis.

But there is much debate over whether to label excessive use a mental illness.

On the one hand, technology addiction is not listed in the American Psychiatric Association's manual of disorders, and thus any treatment is not covered by health insurance.

A decade after he introduced the concept as a joke, Goldberg's view of it does not seem to have changed. "I've had people who found my name on the Internet, and come in saying 'Hey doc, I'm an Internet addict,' " he says. "I say, 'Tell me about the rest of your life.' Some are depressed; some of them have mood disorders. The disorder is not the overuse of the Internet. That's the symptom."

On the other hand, over the past decade there has grown a mostly cottage industry of therapists treating it, researchers studying it and journalists covering Internet addiction as a tangible and growing problem too new to be officially recognized.

"New studies indicate this is a global problem," says Kimberly Young, a clinical psychologist who wrote the first book on the subject of Internet addiction, "Caught in the Net," and founded the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery in Bradford, Pennsylvania. There are clinics for the treatment of Internet addiction in China and in Korea. One clinic director has estimated as many as 2.5 million Chinese suffer from the condition.

Young believes that when enthusiasm shades into addiction, there are signs that can be diagnosed, much like those of the official so-called impulse control disorders, such as gambling.

"You are looking for someone who is preoccupied with the Internet, hides or lies about their behavior, shows an inability to control their use, uses the Internet as a form of psychological escape, and continues to engage in the behavior despite the problems that it causes in one's life."

A survey conducted late last year by researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine found that more than one out of every eight users of the Internet in the United States reported having at least one of these and other possible signs of "problematic Internet use." Almost 6 percent, for example, said that "their relationships suffered" as a result of their overuse of the Internet.

The researchers called for more study of this "little-studied, negative by-product of the Internet revolution of the last decade."

Miller, the psychiatrist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center -- who is also editor-in-chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter -- seems to not care about labels.

"Computers are such an integral part of our life that in a certain sense we're all addicted to the technology," he says. "But we're 'addicted' in the same way that we're 'addicted' to automobiles.

"Parents were worried in the '60s about their kids being addicted to television; now they're worried about their kids being addicted to their computer screens," Miller says. "We don't need a new term in order to describe behavior that's been around for thousands of years -- the choices we make between pleasure and responsibility. We all have to struggle with putting aside things that are gratifying, but aren't satisfying over the long term." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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