You may have seen the signs. Your child, once obsessed with Little League, SpongeBob and skateboarding, now seems to be squirreled away in his bedroom for hours at a time. He has developed a jailhouse pallor. On the rare occasions you see him, it’s just long enough for him to raid the fridge before scurrying back into his room to continue a zombie war. Or text friends he rarely sees in person. Or “level up” his thoughts, rather than act on them. Perhaps this behavior has been accompanied by a dip in grades. Or a lack of muscle tone, everywhere except his thumbs. And, perhaps, your mention of his techno-obsession is met with angry denial and hostility. If this scenario seems all too familiar, your child may be an Internet addict. As growing numbers of youths check email compulsively, play computer games obsessively and have more friends on Facebook than in real life, the ministry of education in Japan believes Internet “fasting camps” may provide the cure for this digital compulsion. A research team at Nihon University in Tokyo recent carried out an extensive survey of junior and senior high students to measure their use of the Internet. After analyzing the results from questionnaires distributed to about 140,000 adolescents, the study designers concluded that about 8 percent of all participants showed signs of Internet addiction. Extrapolating from the results of this new study, Japanese government officials estimate that as many as 500,000 of the country’s teens may be suffering from Internet addiction, and they believe that the problem will continue to grow unless drastic steps are taken. The phenomenon of Internet addiction is still so new that many parents are unaware that such a disorder exists. Young people who become authentically dependent on virtual experiences are often plagued by a number of disruptive and disturbing side effects that can include sleeping and eating disorders, depression, anxiety and irritability, and a decline in academic performance. This condition manifests as the classic obsessive-compulsive disorder, with the young people afflicted unable to tear themselves away from an electronic landscape where texting, chatting, game-playing, file-sharing, tweeting and random online surfing can create instant connections with other adolescents from all around the world. If they try to stay away from their computers and smart phones for a time, adolescents suffering from Internet addiction will experience withdrawal symptoms akin to those of drug addicts when they attempt to get clean and sober, and parents of kids who are openly suffering from this new modern disorder quickly come to realize that the process of digital detoxification is far from a walk in the park.
A Fast Solution
In China, awareness of Internet addiction in youth has been high for a long time, and the Chinese government has chosen to address the situation by opening Internet “boot camps” for adolescents that are designed to break kids of their Internet dependency. Japanese policymakers have been inspired by this novel idea, and, in the wake of the Nihon University study, the government’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare is now proposing that the nation open a series of Internet fasting camps that will help young people learn to live without constant digital feedback and input. Unlike the Chinese camps, which allegedly put participants under extreme physical and emotional duress in an effort to create an aversion to the Internet, the Japanese rehabilitation project will give adolescents the chance to experience the transformative healing powers of the forests, mountains, lakes and fields. Similar to what would happen at old-fashioned summer camps, kids attending Internet fasting camps will have the opportunity to learn and practice a variety of outdoor sports and recreational activities in secluded natural environments, while having no access to computers, cell phones, iPods and iPads, hand-held video games, or any other digital information and communication devices. To counter the effects of constant immersion in digitally mediated habitats, teens suffering from Internet addiction will be asked to rediscover a more traditional style of relating to each other and to the world around them.
Downloading Into Danger
Digital information technologies are without question enhancing the social lives and educational experiences of adolescents all across the globe. But ideally they should function as a supplement to real living and not as a replacement for it, and teens who are using digital devices incessantly are following a dark path that could lead them into serious trouble. While something clearly needs to be done to stem the rising tide of Internet addiction, it could be argued that the Japanese plan for treating the problem is a bit simplistic if not downright naive. Outdoor learning retreats undoubtedly have value for impressionable youth, but the instructors at these camps will not be qualified to provide the kind of focused psychotherapeutic intervention that addicts and obsessive-compulsives often need to get their lives back on track. Nevertheless, kids who attend these camps will have an excellent chance to experience the three-dimensional world around them in a constructive and more complete way, and this could have great value in particular to youngsters who are not yet hard-core Internet addicts but who could be headed in that direction if circumstances don’t change.
A Glimpse of the Future?
Internet fasting camps will not work if they are used as a replacement for treatment and rehabilitation in the instances where this type of intervention is really needed. But as a supplement to conventional therapy they could be quite effective, and they may be very helpful in stopping addiction from developing in young people who have only begun to lose control of their online activity. Addiction specialists in every nation will be following this Japanese experiment closely. And if the Internet fasting concept proves successful, we can expect to see this program replicated elsewhere, as the nations of the world seek effective means for dealing with the challenge of the burgeoning global problem of Internet addiction.