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The Hardest Part of ‘Cyber Addiction’ Is Making It Go Away

No one really knows what to do about the growing obsession with gaming and porn among young men

In 2009, L.A.-based family therapist and licensed social worker Christopher Mulligan noticed a startling trend among the children and teens he was treating: An increasing number of them were developing pathological relationships with technology, so much so that Mulligan reconfigured his practice to focus on “cyber addiction.”

Now, Mulligan is the proprietor of the Cyber Addiction Recovery Center, where he counsels scores of young people (almost all of them male) whose technology use comes at the expense of their social and emotional development.

Yet the legitimacy of cyber addiction — as with other behavior-based addictions (e.g., sex addiction, gambling addiction) — is a matter of debate among experts. Cyber addiction was not included in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the American Psychiatric Association’s list of officially recognized mental illnesses, and Mulligan admits it’s “a far distance from being accepted.” But Mulligan believes the affliction will only become more pervasive as technology further embeds itself into our daily lives.

So where lies the line between playing too much Bejeweled and full-blown cyber addiction? And is cyber addiction legit, or just alarmism from stodgy old-timers? MEL spoke with Mulligan about the characteristics of cyber addiction, why it disproportionately affects men, how it’s ruining courtship and whether we, as a society, are addicted to technology.

What’s the definition of cyber addiction?
A process addiction — or a behavioral addiction — still follows the basic guidelines of addictions to substances.

In the case of cyber addiction, the person experiences preoccupation with being online, or playing a game or watching pornography. They experience cravings when they’re not engaged in it. They develop tolerance for it, so they develop a need to increase their use. They have withdrawal symptoms, such as rage episodes when they’re told to get off technology. Finally, they persist in the behavior despite negative consequences — they continue to play video games all day despite poor grades and problems with socialization, for instance.

What did you notice that made you believe cyber addiction was a growing problem?
That kids were spending more weekends inside. They were not hanging out with friends anymore. They were increasingly spending their time socializing and recreating online or in the confines of a game. Their universe was shrinking and was becoming more and more dependent on virtual interaction than real life.

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How does cyber addiction affect a person’s life?
The biggest problem is boys withdraw into virtual reality. They become less and less capable of leading a life where they have real friends and real opportunities to develop socially. Their development is stunted, socially, by virtue of having only online interactions. They’re deprived of many different kinds of opportunities, especially dating opportunities. They fall into this world of gamers that’s almost exclusively male, and usually get involved in pornography as well. It’s very common, a combination of gaming and porn.

What is the gender breakdown of your patients?
Ninety percent are male, but I’m seeing more girls than I used to see.

Why does it so disproportionately affect boys?
Because the gaming and porn industries target boys. Those are the two most common compulsions I’ve seen, and they tend to go together.

Does cyber addiction affect adults, too?
I see it more in my adolescent practice than in my young adult practice, but it certainly affects adults, too. The pornography addiction work I’ve done is primarily young adult males, as young as 17 years old and as old as men in their 30s and 40s.

How does all this porn affect a boy’s sexual development?
If pornography becomes their dominant form of sexual stimulation and sexual information, then they typically withdraw from females and develop compulsive, or truly addictive, behavior. They don’t feel comfortable with real relationships. They lose, again, crucial opportunities to learn how to do courtship and how to develop intimacy. How to be in an intimate relationship is compromised profoundly by the combination of gaming and pornography.

It sounds like a recipe for deep depression later in life.
It’s fueled by depression. There’s no question there’s a link between depression and excessive technology use.

What is cyber addiction like for girls, then?
It’s a different type of profile. It’s more social and more connected to a group of girlfriends, or guy friends, or both. It tends to be more driven toward their phones and spending an inordinate amount of time texting, Instagramming, Snapchatting. It’s not that they don’t have compulsive behavior, or excessive behavior, it’s just a very different kind of behavior.

Gamers also typically have some other psychiatric problem that is fueling their cyber addiction. That might be ADHD, depression, social anxiety, autism spectrum disorder or a combination thereof.

Of the cyber addicts you treat, what percent suffer from another mental illness?
Almost 100 percent. It’s almost never an isolated problem.

Then is this more about treating cyber addiction, or the underlying mental illness?
You have to do both if you’re going to be effective.

Do we have a wider, cultural addiction to technology?
Yes. Generally, there’s a dependence and reliance on technology to solve all kinds of problems — some of which are appropriate, actually. So it’s not the case that all technology is bad or destructive. But is there an increasing dependence for children and teens.

Colleges are rethinking the amount of technology that’s allowed in the classroom, for instance. I teach at USC, and they had a pilot program last year where certain classrooms were designated as technology-free zones — students weren’t allowed to have their phones, laptops or tablets in these classrooms. They were experimenting with it because they were seeing so much distraction and multitasking (or the belief in multitasking).

The idea millennials have of multitasking leads them to have four or five screens open at the same time, and this fantasy of being able to do five or six things simultaneously, which they can’t.

That’s the irony, right? Every innovation is supposed to make us more efficient, but they all come with their own unique set of problems and distractions.
Yes. My patients have tremendous problems with distraction. They attempt to do the impossible, which is two or three things at the same time. Our brains can’t do it.

What’s the line between being a productive member of our wired world and overdoing it?
It’s a relatively easy distinction to make. Many people use technology very effectively and get a lot of work done. Most importantly, they have a robust offline life. They still go out at night. They still have friends that are non-virtual. They keep a life that we can recognize in the physical world.

The dividing line is people become increasingly isolated socially.

Does cyber addictions correlate with any substance addictions?
There’s a lot of marijuana use in gamers. Whether that’s an association or an actual correlation, it’s hard to know. But it makes cyber addiction much worse, because patients can veg out and not think about how they’re spending their life. They’re sort of immunized from insight into their life.

How do you treat cyber addiction?
It starts with a digital fast that can last anywhere from 45 to 90 days. From there comes the dual focus on treating the underlying problem, and then building the missing skills so that they can get traction in their non-virtual life and increase their overall self awareness.

What’s the success rate?
In terms of really substantial change and getting people’s lives turned around, no better than half, maybe less. It’s an incredibly difficult problem to solve, especially if the patient has already been online for years. They tend not to have the motivation or the insight to do the work. Without that, they’ll have a very difficult time making any progress.

Will this problem get worse in the future?
It is getting worse. Teens that are texting up to 4,000 messages per month. They sleep with their phones and can’t get offline at all. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that the average child or teen is tethered to technology 11 and a half hours a day — they’re on technology more than they’re sleeping.