At the Melbourne International Film Festival 2014 I watched Web Junkie, a documentary focusing on a rehabilitation centre for computer gaming addicts. There are more than 400 similar centres in China attempting to remediate the growing issue of addiction to online gaming, mostly in adolescent boys.
Some of the Web Junkie youths would spend 10 hours every day during their school holiday months indoors playing their internet-based games of war or fantasy with an often global community. Some even wore nappies to avoid having to stop to go to the toilet. Many of them withdrew from the world around them, no longer interacting with their families, having troubles at school and disengaging from “real” life. The documentary revealed the sense of connection they gained through their addiction: this virtual world awarded them success and respect that was difficult to achieve in their lives. Plus, they could fly and perform other amazing feats impossible in the “real” world.
There is an increasing amount of research on addictions to technology. Like substance addiction, gaming addictions involve mood modification, tolerance and behavioural changes. Similarly, too, they stimulate the dopamine reward pathway. As with alcohol addiction, only a minority of gamers develop a problematic addiction; many people can use without becoming addicted. Studies have shown the personality traits of sensation seeking, aggression, anxiety and neuroticism may lead to addiction over casual use.
Detox demands you consider your addictions. It requires you to recognise what toxic substances and behaviours you are addicted to in your life. It asks the questions: How are these addictions destructive or harmful? What is the cause of the addiction? What is it compensating for? What imbalances exist that allow the addiction to take hold in the first place?
A primary health issue of gaming addiction is how sedentary the player is while experiencing repeated surges of adrenalin. This stress response is detrimental to the stationary body. It can lead to glucose tolerance issues and metabolic inflammation and it stresses the entire system. Also, in adolescence the brain undergoes a remarkable level of growth and development. The activities of the teenager, in regards to activity and attention, will significantly influence how the adult will think and act. Overall, excessive gaming is setting the adolescent up for poorer physical and mental health in the long term.
Internet gaming addiction may reflect many different phenomena, well beyond my capacity to discuss in detail. In short, though, issues of self-value, the ability to develop interpersonal relationships and the expectations, offerings and experience of the society all play a role. The key issue identified in the documentary was the sense of connection these teenagers lacked in the real world but found in the online one. Rehab included family counselling with the parents, which helped to build bridges of healthy communication, so that needs and feelings could be articulated and shared. “The currency of wellness is connection,” suggests Professor Jack Travis. I suspect he is correct. I wonder too how much the need to disconnect from a troubled world is driving this addiction.
We humans need to play. Play is vital and healthy. It gives us great reward and learning as well as creating connection and culture. Internet gaming is an amazing new playground for humanity, offering unknown potential for our evolution.
The Web Junkie documentary was provocative. Catching the tram home after the film that Saturday, I saw how the vast majority of the people on the tram were on their smartphones or other electronic devices. Hardly anyone was talking to each other. While I love technology and the profound advantages it provides us, I wonder what it’s doing to our capacity to deeply connect with life.
A regular IT detox is good practice. Schedule specific times for internet access and email checking. Turn off your smartphone when out socialising or in public. Instead of touching our phones every six minutes (as the research suggests), we could instead connect with other living things — animals, trees, fungi, the wind, other human beings — or simply connect fully with the moment of full reality we are in.
Sally Mathrick is a practising naturopath. She runs Sparkle Detox and Wellness Courses and Retreats. See sparklewell.com.au for more information.