February 27, 2024

‘I couldn’t stop’: Inside the 12-step program for Internet addiction | Mental health

“Hello, my name is Sarah* and I am addicted to the Internet and technology.”

Thus began a meeting on a recent Wednesday afternoon, as 18 people gathered quietly on a Zoom call. The text on the small video frames of him showed that they came from places as disparate as Oregon, India and Namibia.

Sarah and the other attendees are part of a growing community called Internet and Technology Addicts Anonymous (ITAA), a 12-step program based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous that provides tools and support for dealing with compulsive Internet use. It launched with just a few founding groups in the US in 2017 and quickly grew to have thousands of members around the world, with over 100 online and in-person meetings in seven different languages.

Since Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935, its 12 steps have been adapted for other addictions and compulsive behaviors, such as overeating, overspending, and gambling. Now the traditionally abstinence-based program has been modified by a new drug of choice: our phones.

At meetings, ITAA participants who feel their technology use has veered into destructive territory share their experiences and support each other in setting healthy boundaries.

Their problems range from online shopping and compulsive social media browsing to video game addictions and binge-watching TV shows. For most, the goal is not abstinence, but manageability.

ITAA member Aubrey said that when she attended her first meeting nine months ago, she was spending more than 12 hours a day scrolling through different social media apps, compulsively posting and checking who had liked or interacted with her content. Her online habits affected her relationships and made it difficult for her to keep a job.

“It felt like a gambling addiction or a slot machine, because I was constantly refreshing my pages over and over again; I couldn’t stop,” he said. “Every day I told myself, ‘Okay, tomorrow I’ll stop doing it.’ But I could not. He was killing me.”

Defining limits

Internet and technology addiction is not recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals in the US, but research increasingly show that it has similarities with more widely recognized disorders such as alcoholism.

A 2012 study of college students with cell phone dependence tracked structural changes in the brain similar to those that have been discovered in the brains of people with substance addictions. Leading addiction experts have said that the dopamine cycle initiated by social media use mirrors that seen in drug users. A 2016 study of people suffering from gaming addiction found that their neurological responses to gaming cues mirrored those seen in drug addicts who experienced physical cravings.

Unlike substance abuse disorders, Internet and gaming dependence is considered a type of “behavioral” addiction. The only behavioral addiction recognized by the DSM-5 is gambling disorder, added in 1980. But such behavioral or “process” addictions have several similarities to chemical addictions, said Lawrence Weinstein, medical director of the American Addiction Center.

“Process addictions activate the brain’s reward center in a similar way to substances, but instead of a substance increasing dopamine levels, the increase is caused by that particular behavior,” he said. “The pleasure obtained from that behavior reinforces that the individual will perform it again in the future.”

Many people – both researchers and people affected by Internet addiction – describe an experience similar to drug use disorders, which the DSM-5 characterizes as “poor control, physical dependence, social problems, and risky use.”

Such was the case for Aubrey, who said her compulsive use of social media was “sucking the life out of her.” She now attends daily meetings and considers herself sober due to her Internet addiction, meaning she has stayed true to her self-imposed rules for responsible use. She can now have a full-time job in a field she is passionate about and which, ironically, involves posting on social media from time to time.

“It’s about finding support to refrain from behaviors that I really felt were out of my control.” Photograph: Brian Moore/Alamy

While organizations like Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous are based on an abstinence framework (you drink or you don’t drink), programs like ITAA are more nuanced, with each member determining their own definition of sobriety.

For Aubrey, a “bottom line” (the shows talk about a hard limit whose violation would be considered a relapse into addiction) is checking social media likes, scrolling through your feed, or watching Instagram stories. The “middle lines” are potentially triggers for behaviors that need to be addressed carefully. Aubrey still uses the Internet for work-related posts, while she communicates with a program sponsor who holds her accountable.

“The program has given me tools with which I can navigate my Internet use in a way that aligns with my values,” he said. “Total abstinence is difficult, so you’re really trying to figure out a healthier relationship with the Internet and technology. “It’s about finding support to refrain from behaviors that I really felt were out of my control.”

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“It’s no longer a one-size-fits-all approach”

Studies show that Alcoholics Anonymous is the most effective path to abstinence-based addiction recovery, and the program has long been the gold standard in recovery medicine. But as methods such as harm reduction, which seeks to minimize the negative effects of substance use rather than eradicate them, gain popularity, experts say there is a growing understanding that different people may need different resources.

“We no longer need a one-size-fits-all approach, which is how addiction treatment has been handled in the past,” said Emily Brunner, a Minnesota-based family medicine physician who works in addiction treatment. “The most common way we approach things now is to evaluate individually and combine what works best for each patient.”

Still, most addiction specialists agree that community support is critical to recovery. In addition to Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs, alternative groups have gained popularity, including Smart Recovery, Recovery Dharma, and Celebrate Recovery.

“These programs, 12-step and otherwise, provide structure, outline a path to sustained recovery, combat shame and stigma, and offer connections with others who have the same desire to stop engaging in a specific addictive behavior,” said Amanda Lee Giordano, a professor of addiction counseling at the University of Georgia. “Often, peer support programs along with individual or group counseling are an optimal approach to treating behavioral addictions.”

ITAA members are also quick to say that 12-step programs are not the only path out of addictions like yours, but they are often the cheapest and most accessible. Steven, a founding member of ITAA, said he hit rock bottom six years ago, when he spent almost all of his waking hours gaming, browsing social media and bingeing online content, from podcasts to TV shows. Suicidal and desperate, he sought help on the Internet but found few resources in the United States other than expensive rehab facilities.

Inpatient treatment for drug and alcohol addiction ranges from $5,000 to $80,000 in the United States, according to the American Addiction Centers directory site. Summerland, a digital detox camp aimed at children, costs nearly $12,000 for a seven-week retreat. ReSTART, an Internet addiction rehab center for adults, charges $18,000 a month.

Meanwhile, ITAA and other 12-step programs are completely free. Steven said the lack of resources for people like him underlines how misunderstood internet addiction is, with few resources dedicated to researching it.

“It’s like typical addictions, except the drug is dopamine,” he said. “But because everyone uses screens all the time, it’s very normalized and it’s hard to have a clear idea of ​​what is healthy or not. “I don’t think our society likes to recognize the true nature of how harmful this can be.”

Steven, a staunch atheist, said he was initially afraid to participate in a 12-step program because it focused on finding a “higher power,” a common criticism of Alcoholics Anonymous. But he eventually discovered that the program strengthened his relationship with atheism.

“For me, a really important part of being an atheist is a commitment to the truth,” he said. “I realized that it was an illusion to believe that I could control my addiction, to think that I could overcome a neurological condition. “I learned to accept support without prejudice from other people who understand my problem and accept me.”

Steven said he recognizes there is some irony in finding so much support for his Internet addiction in online meeting rooms, and there are certainly people in the program who prefer to meet only in person. But in many ways, finding help online reinforced some of the core tenets of the ITAA program.

“It’s not about eliminating technology: technology is really wonderful in many ways. It’s about learning what is healthy and what is unhealthy for us personally,” she said. “It’s definitely possible to get sober over the Internet.”

*All ITAA member names have been changed in this story to maintain anonymity in accordance with the organization’s traditions.

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