Ostrow: "Web Junkies" — when does screen overuse become an addiction …

Sometimes the urge will not be denied. After a day glued to screens, Internet surfing, TV watching, phone texting and iPad browsing, it is increasingly difficult to let go. One more text. A last check of the e-mail, one more scan of Tweetdeck. There may be something new, some sign of digital life from afar that will seal my connection to the world.

I see how the compulsion takes hold. Remind me not to invest in a screen for my wrist. I already lean too much toward “always on.”

Technology never sleeps and, increasingly, neither do we, the pale blue glow giving the lie to darkened rooms at night.

A documentary on the subject, “Web Junkies,” observes how the virtual world can become more real than the actual world to kids who spend their lives online. They forget to eat or sleep, get irritable when forced to step away from the Internet. The film, recently on PBS and available online, focuses on a rehab center in China, where screen addiction is now a classified clinical disorder. The Australian Psychological Society has weighed in, encouraging the inclusion of “Internet-use disorder” in an international psychiatric manual.

The U.S. hasn’t gone that far, but is considering adding “Internet gaming disorder” to the therapist’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) published by the American Psychiatric Association. The APA’s conclusion, mostly based on evidence from young male gamers in Asia, is that it warrants more study.

More study? When we know anecdotally it’s a real thing?

“It is an increasing phenomenon that I’m aware of,” said Denver child psychiatrist Susan Lurie. “I would say most child psychiatrists or therapists dealing with children are working with this issue.”

Lurie sees many kids “who have other issues but then get drawn into video games. There is something about the games and the way they’re structured that is very addicting. It becomes like a drug for the kids. It’s the same pathways in the brain as other addictions.”

Generally speaking, she said, there is a recognized internet overuse disorder, “not an official disorder, but we all know people who can’t have a conversation” because they’re so hooked on technology.

Hours and hours

A 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 8-18 year-olds devote an average of seven hours and 38 minutes to entertainment media across a typical day — more than 53 hours a week. And because they spend so much of that time “media multitasking” (using more than one medium at a time), they actually pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes’ worth of media content into those seven and a half hours.

But it’s not just teens bonding with technology and media more than with other humans. Kids of all ages are susceptible (you’ve heard of video poker? perhaps you know a crazed grownup blogger?).

Studies large and small show that too much staring at screens is bad for the brain, is bad for kids’ bones, fosters sleep deprivation and generally has a negative effect on youngsters’ social skills.

The documentary “Web Junkies” goes inside a boot camp set up for teens (almost all males) to break them of their dependence on the screen. At Daxing Boot Camp in Beijing, one of 400 government rehab centers created to treat the disorder, calisthenics, group therapy and a complete lack of screens of any sort have proved successful at breaking the dependence.

“It is complicated,” said Debbie Carter, a psychiatrist specializing in children and teens. “We know there may be something very rewarding, very reinforcing about TV and visual imagery, based on pediatric studies.” The visual imagery may even be a substitute for relationships.

A kind of addiction

This has been a controversial point, but most scientists now believe behaviors can be as addictive as drugs. When a habit becomes an obligation, it’s an addiction, says an article in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse:

“Behavioral addictions such as gambling, overeating, television compulsion and Internet addiction are similar to drug addiction except that the individual is not addicted to a substance, but he/she is addicted to the behavior or the feeling experienced by acting out the behavior.” (Studies of cellphone addiction suggest female college students are more at risk than their male peers.)

Still, even five years ago there wasn’t enough evidence to pin down the definition of “Internet addiction.” The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse: “little is known about the patho-physiological and cognitive mechanisms responsible for Internet addiction. Due to the lack of methodologically adequate research, it is currently impossible to recommend any evidence-based treatment of Internet addiction.”

“Here’s the point that’s complicated,” Lurie said. “Are depressed kids who are not getting alot of gratification in other parts of their lives drawn to these games, and then at higher risk for developing an addiction?” Underlying causes must be considered in the equation.

Lurie has treated boys with severe OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) who can’ t leave the house, and who develop gaming disorders. “They train, drink power drinks, they’re heroes. They want to be professional gamers. It’s a strange world we live in.”

Most parents won’t wait for the APA to officially label this a problem.

When it’s a disorder

But how much is too much? How can we know when the habit has spilled over into an addiction?

“When it starts to significantly impair your function, when there is a significant drop off in grades and in friendships, then it starts to be a disorder,” Lurie said. “Not just because your parents think you’re playing too much.”

“It’s not uncommon, where kids are deprived of the computer, it leads to such a bad tantrum, they are kicking holes in walls. Then, if the parents are in good treatment, they help them weather the storm and if the kid gets treatment, too, it can help break the addiction.”

The problem, Lurie said, shows up in “kids with social anxieties who really need to be out there in the world and face to face with peers,” who instead text and surf the web instead of acquiring the skills needed to have a true emotional connection.

“There are kids who will forge what they consider to be real friendships online with people in other states or other countries. They are deeply drawn to a sort of an imaginary relationship.” In therapy sessions, Lurie said, “they’ll talk about their girlfriend or boyfriend, serious relationships, and you always have to ask, is it an online relationship? Someone they’ve never met?”

Wellness columnist Jane Brody of the New York Times has been writing lately about screen addiction and tools for parents in the digital age. Among the recommendations: Set an example yourself.

Parents who interrupt kids to take a call or answer a text are sending the wrong message, she reports. She cites experts who urge parents to “establish device-free times of day, like the first hour after school and the hour before bed” and forbid cellphones and tablets at the dinner table.

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I recall instituting that policy years ago: no screens at mealtimes. Most kids invited to our house responded well; I still worry about the ones who didn’t.

That kind of policing works until kids attain a certain age. At some point, they stay up later than we do, they spend the wee hours posting and reading about friends, communicating digitally and perhaps even meaningfully.

As a near-addict myself, it’s difficult to disdain my daughter’s online habits. I haven’t set the best example. But, so far, I don’t see a need for boot camp.

As long as we can engage on a powerful level, face-to-face, when we both put down our devices, I’ll assume we’re doing OK.

Joanne Ostrow: 303-954-1830, jostrow@denverpost.com or twitter.com/ostrowdp