Is Internet Addiction A Thing? : Shots - Health News What started out as web surfing by a healthy teen descended into online obsession and isolation. Was it depression, internet addiction or both? Whatever you call it, rehab is now part of the answer.
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Is 'Internet Addiction' Real?

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Is 'Internet Addiction' Real?

Is 'Internet Addiction' Real?

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

And on this week's All Tech Considered, we know about alcohol and drug addiction, but what about internet addiction?

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MCEVERS: Many of us feel like we spend too much time online. Some people, though, cannot unplug. Lesley McClurg of KQED in San Francisco introduces us to a teenager who sought rehab for obsessively watching YouTube.

LESLEY MCCLURG, BYLINE: When her daughter Naomi was in middle school, Ellen watched her disappear behind a screen.

ELLEN: Before, she was pretty bubbly and outgoing. And then she started just laying there, not moving and just being on the phone.

MCCLURG: The family asked we use middle names and no last names to protect their medical privacy. Naomi had always been kind of a nerd with a few close friends, a straight-A student in a competitive choir. But she desperately wanted to be popular, and the cool kids talked a lot about YouTube.

NAOMI: I started trying to watch, like, as many videos as I could so, like, I knew as much as they did.

MCCLURG: After school, she'd race home and curl up for hours, watching video after video. Ellen says her daughter would often emerge for dinner in a foul mood.

ELLEN: She was quick to anger, very contrary and oppositional.

MCCLURG: Naomi had started watching violent videos.

NAOMI: Girls just fighting each other, pulling each other by the hair. And it was just something that everybody was watching.

MCCLURG: And how did they make you feel?

NAOMI: I think it was just fun to watch 'cause they would, like, make me laugh. And at that time, I was having a pretty hard time dealing with depression and anxiety.

MCCLURG: For the first time in her life, it was tough to keep up with school.

NAOMI: And then it just got worse and worse. I was researching how many pills I had to take to die.

MCCLURG: Naomi downed a bottle of Tylenol. It shattered her mother, Ellen.

ELLEN: (Crying) And I wasn't home. She got ahold of the medicine, and she was home alone. And we'd been told to lock it up, but we just didn't think this would ever happen.

MCCLURG: Her family checked her into an addiction recovery center for teenagers called Paradigm. Naomi was treated for depression but also a substance use disorder - in this case, compulsively watching YouTube. The facility, north of San Francisco, offers group classes like music therapy.

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MCCLURG: Naomi sits in a circle with other teens, tentatively drumming, shaking rattles, ringing triangles. The goal is to help students release pent-up feelings in a safe space.

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MCCLURG: Jeff Nalin is Paradigm's co-founder and head psychologist. He says more and more teens are using the Internet to cope.

JEFF NALIN: I think in the last year or two, people have really come to identify that as the issue.

MCCLURG: Nalin says teens use smartphones and iPads to cork the volcano of emotions brewing inside.

NALIN: But it just rumbles and rumbles until it blows. And it blows with the emergence of a depression, or it emerges with a suicide attempt.

MCCLURG: Researchers are studying people's brains while they're online. Among them are Elias Aboujaoude, a psychiatrist at Stanford University.

ELIAS ABOUJAOUDE: And their brains start looking like those of someone who has a substance use disorder. Similar pathways seem activated.

MCCLURG: Aboujaoude says the Internet is stimulating the feel-good brain chemical dopamine. Tolerance to the Internet builds just like it would to hard drugs.

ABOUJAOUDE: People needing more and more time on a particular online video game, for example, to get the same kind of euphoric feeling.

MCCLURG: Which triggers insomnia, dysfunctional relationships and absent days at school, all the classic signs of a true addiction. But some psychologists argue it's just too soon to say. They believe the digital world is likely just an overindulgence. However, an emerging consensus is pushing for a technical diagnosis so kids get the resources they need to kick the digital habit. For NPR News, I'm Lesley McClurg in San Francisco.

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