Bradford hospital opens beds to online addicts

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Think of it as "digital detox."

Bradford Regional Medical Center on Monday opened a four-bed program to treat those suffering from Internet addiction. It is believed to be the first such hospital-based facility in the country, although private and out-patient programs were around before "friend" became a verb.

"I think this is a fairly new field, and certainly there is nothing to compare it to at this point," said Kimberly Young, the psychologist who created the cognitive behavioral therapy program at the McKean County facility, about 3 1/2 hours northeast of Pittsburgh.

"There is a learning curve for all of us."

Because Internet addiction is not recognized as a medical condition by the American Psychiatric Association's "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders," or DSM-5, treatment is not covered by insurance. Bradford's 10-day residential program costs $14,000.

Patients have no access to tech devices for the first 72 hours, and then they're slowly reintroduced. The regimen includes talk therapy and behavioral modification. No drugs are prescribed.

"We are trying to look at what are the basic costs for beds, meals, medical doctors, caseworkers, social workers -- all the services -- and this is what we came up with," said Ms. Young, adding that some for-profit addiction centers such as one in Malibu, Calif., run upward of $88,000 for a month's stay.

Then there is Oakland, Calif.-based and aptly named Digital Detox, which operates a trio of three-day summer events called Camp Grounded.Ditch the Galaxy s4's and iPads at the door; in place of Web surfing, there's a cheerfully low-tech lineup of activities including "dancing in the moonlight," "sneaking out at night" and rock wall-climbing.

Bradford Regional's announcement has garnered a surprising amount of media coverage, including reports on NBC's "Today," The Huffington Post, Fox News, and more.

"The whole thing has been a little crazy," said Ms. Young, who created the online Center for Internet Addiction Recovery as well as the www.netaddiction.com site, the latter in 1995.

Pittsburgh centers -- including Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic at UPMC and Allegheny Health Network and Gateway Rehabilitation -- treat any number of behavioral and/or substance abuse issues, but none addresses Internet addiction.

"There is a lot of overlap with similar systems to treating pathological gambling," said Alicia Kaplan, a psychiatrist specializing in anxiety disorders in the Allegheny Health Network.

Dr. Kaplan, who worked as a fellow on a study of Internet addiction about 11 years ago at New York's Mt. Sinai Hospital, noted that although it's not yet recognized in the DSM-5, "as time goes on, with what might be more of a clinically established diagnosis, it's [likely to be] on the spectrum."

Internet use has changed drastically since it began to spread to households in the mid-1990s, she said.

"In the early '90s, it was more AOL chat rooms and pornography, the late '90s, probably daytrading. In the 2000s, it became more auction houses like eBay and social media emerged.

"But gaming has probably been consistent[ly there] through the decades."

In 2007 Ms. Young developed an abstract that concluded the most likely demographic to suffer some form of Internet addiction was the white middle-aged male. Now, she said, "it's anybody with a computer and access -- it could be your 15-year-old son or your 70-year-old grandmother."

Since 2007, many online trends have flipped, with stay-at-home Web surfing giving way to Wi-Fi and streaming on-the-go. In 2009, tablets hit the consumer market in a big way.

So the image of the cyber-addicted husband typing away late at night doesn't fly anymore. A recent study by the Pew Research Center Internet Project suggested 30 percent of adults in the United States have no broadband Internet connection.

Although recent studies indicate that Internet use is on the rise, Asians far and away are more involved in Web activity than anyone else in the world. A 2009 episode of the PBS documentary series, "Frontline," focused on parents dropping off their children at free Internet Rescue Centers in South Korea, where an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the population was considered "at risk" for Internet addiction.

Some of the symptoms of Internet addiction, according to Ms. Young's program, include feeling "restless, moody, depressed, or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop Internet use."

Some might argue that the concept of Internet addiction is sort of the tail wagging the dog: that depressed, moody, irritable people might be more likely to lose themselves online, than becoming so because of Web surfing.

Ms. Young said successfully treating addictive behavior, whether it be for gambling, viewing porn or shopping, involves consistent follow-up. To that end, "family support is probably the most important variable I've seen."Although she's not a big tech person -- "I practice my own religion where I put my own stuff away in the evenings and weekends and try to look at family time" -- she said she understands that for the tech/Internet-obsessed, it is increasingly difficult to unplug.

"It's a whole different world in the last few decades. Now they're talking about wearing devices and Google Glass, so the technology just changes everything."

region - health

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.


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