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Is internet addiction a growing problem?

Cam Adair finally realised that his addiction to video games was out of control when it made him consider ending his life.

“I struggled with it for 10 years,” he says. “I dropped out of high school, never went to college, and pretended to have jobs to deceive my family.

“I eventually wrote a suicide note, and it was on that night that I realised I needed to get help. I’m now 3,860-day-free from my gaming addiction.”

Mr Adair, a 32-year-old Canadian, has gone on to become the founder of Game Quitters, an online support group for people struggling with gaming addiction. It now has more than 75,000 members around the globe.

While technology, and specifically the internet, has helped to keep the world running during the coronavirus lockdowns, he says it has been difficult for people like him.

“The pandemic led to me spending more time than usual watching Twitch [a live streaming service that focuses on people playing computer games], and YouTube,” says Mr Adair.

“Much of that [YouTube] content was game streamers and games too, both of which can be strong triggers to relapse and play. Thankfully I was able to stay away from a relapse, but I know many people in the Game Quitters community who did unfortunately relapse during Covid.”

Image caption,Young adults can spend hours and hours playing computer games

The US National Library of Medicine now classifies gaming dependency as part of wider internet addiction. It defines this as “excessive or poorly controlled preoccupations, urges or behaviours regarding computer use and internet access that lead to impairment or distress”.

While many would argue that it is not as serious as alcoholism or drug addiction, it can still be debilitating for sufferers. And Dr Andrew Doan, a neuroscientist and expert on digital addiction, agrees that the lockdowns have exacerbated the problem.

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“Stresses in life leads to cravings for behaviours and escape mechanisms,” he says. “The pandemic has increased stress in people’s lives, and a convenient way to escape is using entertainment digital media, such as gaming and social media.

“Excessive use to escape stress is a risk factor for the development of addictive behaviours.”

To help combat internet addiction, a number of tech firms have produced tools that can be used to help block or limit access to the web, or gaming websites.

Linewize is one such product aimed at children, or – more specifically – their parents.

The website and app allow parents and carers to remotely limit and monitor the time children can spend on gaming sites, or the internet overall, be it via the kids’ smart phones or laptops.

Linewize also contains the usual “parental locks” that prevent access to pornography or violent material.

Image caption,For most people with kids this is a familiar sight

Teodora Pavkvic, a qualified psychologist, and digital wellness expert at San Diego-based Linewise, says that young people are particularly susceptible to spending too much time online. This is something that parents of teenagers would be quick to agree with.

“Managing time online in a digitally healthy and balanced way requires highly sophisticated cognitive skills that don’t fully develop until we reach the age of 25.”

She adds: “Online platforms are built to extract and maximise our time, attention and data, and so that – combined with the many sneaky dangers that lurk online – make it exceptionally difficult for children to engage with the online world in a measured, safe and responsible way.”

For adults, internet addiction can also blur into gambling addiction, with betting apps and websites fuelling the later.

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BetBlocker is an app that allows people to block their access to tens of thousands of gambling websites and apps for a user-determined period of time.

Once the restriction is activated, the person cannot access the gambling platforms until the restriction expires.

The BetBlocker app – which is free – can also be controlled by someone’s partner, friend, or parents.

Image caption,Betblocker prevents access to tens of thousands of gambling websites

“The ease of access to remote gambling is unquestionably the biggest challenge that anyone with a gambling addiction will face today,” says BetBlocker’s founder Duncan Garvie.

“Everyone is walking around with a casino, or bookie, in their pocket, and it is very easy to play discretely.”

Users can block gambling sites for hours, days, or weeks. And people can also use the app to block other websites, such as gaming ones.

“This is intended to help users, by creating a restriction during known periods of vulnerability,” adds Mr Garvie, who is based in Edinburgh.

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GamBlock is another app that can be used in a similar way to prevent access to gambling websites. The Australian firm’s chief executive David Warr says “we are not anti-gambling”. Instead the focus is on helping problem gamblers.

Dr Doan’s expertise in video games addiction has partly come the hard way – he used to be such an addict himself.

“During medical school at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine [in Baltimore], and during my residency training, I was playing 80 to 100 hours of video games per week, for about 10 years,” he says.

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The author of a book called Hooked On Games: The Lure And Cost Of Video Games And Internet Addiction, he says that the internet should be seen as two separate parts.

“I break down digital media into two broad categories – digital sugar verses digital veggies. Digital veggies, such as online therapies, can be utilised to help people manage their stress and reduce their risk for addictive behaviours.

“[Whereas] the excessive usage of digital sugars like gaming, pornography and non-work related social media can increase the risk of addictive behaviours, in particular when these activities are used to escape daily stressors.”

Dr Doan fears that given the amount of time we now all spend online, we will see more gaming and internet addictions.

Image caption,The lockdowns thrust both adults and children even more onto the internet

However, Cam Adair is hopeful that tech firms such as Linewize, BetBlocker and GamBlock can play an important role in helping to alleviate the problem. And it is important to stress that anyone concerned about any form of addiction should contact their doctor.

Mr Adair’s work has been published in Psychiatry Research, and he is now an international speaker, talking about addiction.

“Asking for help saved my life,” he says. “I was deceptive, withdrawn, isolated, hostile and unreachable during my addiction. Now I’m happy, content, and able to cope with normal life’s stresses.”

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