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Is Internet Addiction Really A Thing? The World's Leading Expert, Dr. Kimberly Young, Says Yes.
In this episode, August Brice talks with Dr. Kimberly Young, world-recognized, leading expert and founder of The Center for Internet Addiction. Dr. Young is also a Tech Wellness Expert. Learn more about Dr. Young HERE.
She has been studying the issue since the late 1990's and she is certain that the internet can be as addiction as gambling and pornography. Think you might have a bit of an internet problem yourself? Then take Dr. Young's INTERNET ADDICTION TEST. It's completely private and based on your score, you'll get tips on how to create a better digital diet in your life.
I hope you enjoy the episode. If you find what we're doing useful, please like us on the iTunes Store and share the message with your family and friends. And of course for more information, visit us anytime at Tech Wellness.
Here's the full transcript of the podcast:
August Brice: Hi, I'm August Brice. Today I'm excited, very excited, to have on the show the woman who literally invented the whole concept of internet addiction, Dr. Kimberly Young. Hi, Dr. Young.
Kimberly Young: Hello.
August Brice: How are you?
Kimberly Young: I'm doing well today, thank you.
August Brice: Great. You are such a visionary. Listen to this. Dr. Young's bio is on our site at techwellness.com, but the short version is that she's been studying internet addiction since the '90s. In 1995, she founded the Center for Internet Addiction. Dr. Young has also authored numerous books, starting with Caught in the Net, and that was the first book to identify internet addiction. She's been on every major news program from Fox to CNN. She's been on Good Morning America, World News Tonight, the list goes on and on, and she created the most widely recognized test, actually the gold standard, for internet addiction. So Dr. Young, I have to ask you, what was there to be addicted to on the internet in the '90s?
Kimberly Young: Well, it's always a good question, and it's an exciting time for me. My background was actually in neuropsychology and that was in the late '80s, early '90s. Around the early '90s, we started hearing more media reports about the information superhighway was coming. Well, my background was also in computers, and so when I looked at the computers and the psychology of it, my gut reaction was to say that something was addictive about it. But it wasn't until a friend of mine's husband was addicted to AOL chat rooms. He was spending 40, 50, 60 hours a week at a time when it was still $2.95 an hour. Not only did this create a financial burden, but their marriage eventually ended in divorce, because he was meeting women in online chat rooms. It made me wonder if people could get addicted to them in the same way we talk about drugs, alcohol, and sex. So I posted a small survey online taking the same clinical criteria for compulsive gambling, so I substituted the word internet, and I wanted to see what I would find. Well, the very next morning I had something like 50-some email at a time when I probably only had two email a month. Again, we're talking about early 1990s. It was still forming. We were still trying to figure out eCommerce. We were still trying to figure out so many things on how to utilize the World Wide Web. So I expanded my survey, because I saw I had hit a psychological nerve. I mean, people were telling me how they got divorced, how they lost their jobs because of the internet, students across the country having problems with the very tool that they were being encouraged to use. Really, then, my first study culminated in a paper at the 1996 American Psychological Association. Because it was the first, and I was identifying internet addiction as a new disorder, it had a lot of controversy, a lot of media attention. A few years later my first book came out. Again, a lot of controversy, a lot of media attention on Caught in the Net, because these were very new topics. I think over the later part of the '90s, early 2000s, more researchers started replicating this work, figuring out that there was a problem, especially in Asian cultures, in China, Taiwan, Korea. They were really pumping out a lot of the newer research at that point.
August Brice: So way back when you first found your friend's husband, your friend brought her husband to you and wanted you to study him, when you sent out the research you found it wasn't just your friend's husband. It was just everywhere.
Kimberly Young: Right. That was just the catalyst for it, my first idea, if you will. Every new research project has to have some kind of catalyst, I think, and that was mine. But there were many, many others.
August Brice: So the whole thing is picking up so much thing now, but still I think people really want to know, what exactly is internet addiction?
Kimberly Young: Well, like any other addiction. I mean, it's not, you can't just count the number of hours, like people would say, "How much time is too much time?" And it's not like, well, 10 hours a week is okay but not 11 or more. I mean, it's like counting drinks for an alcoholic, 10 drinks a week is okay but 11 is not. I mean, it's more about a set of behaviors. So what we have to look at are things like compulsive use, the inability to control use, the idea that somebody becomes irritable or upset or depressed without technology, that they use it as a form of escape, that they go through withdrawal. So now we're talking about things that are much more like any other addiction. It's become a problem. There's a consequence to the behavior and an inability to control it. That's internet addiction.
August Brice: It's the same as smartphone addiction, device addiction, online addiction. It's all the same thing, correct?
Kimberly Young: Yes. I mean, the terminology is not as relevant as the behavior. I mean, it all means the same thing. I've heard technology addiction, internet addiction, computer addiction. I mean, I think we're all trying to talk about the same thing.
August Brice: Do you have any idea how many people are afflicted? Is there a percentage that you've been able to identify of the entire population?
Kimberly Young: Unfortunately, no. There really hasn't been any new studies. I know that Stanford University years ago had done a study that estimated one in eight Americans suffered from some form of internet addiction, but there really hasn't been any national studies like they have in other countries.
August Brice: Okay. I know that there's a line when you know for sure someone is addicted, but are there clear warning signs that you've been able to identify that maybe somebody is on the edge between obsession and addiction?
Kimberly Young: Oh, yes. It goes back to the same clinical criteria that I mentioned earlier. It was just more of a focus on compulsive use, consequences for the behavior, I mean, has the person lost their job, has the person gotten warnings for losing their job, has a person experienced maybe a separation, not yet a divorce but their wife or husband is upset because of the time they spend online? So I think there's warning signs that there are with alcoholism or drug dependence as well.
August Brice: Okay. So what's the most drastic example you've seen of screen addiction?
Kimberly Young: I really, I can't say one thing. I think the one thing that stands out, and this is back in the early '90s, that was just sort of ... sent chills to me, and I'm trying to remember the location of it, but I want to say that basically, this young boy was very addicted to his computer technology. His parents were divorced. Dad got him the computer, but didn't live at home. Mom one day just got fed up with his dependency, took it away, and the next day she was found dead. He'd shot her. There was a gun in the house. He knew where the gun was, and he shot his mother because she took the computer away.
August Brice: Wow.
Kimberly Young: And I remember getting chills when I heard that, because it was the police that were calling me, trying to get some insight on this young man. But now, just as recent as last week, there's a murder trial in California that I'll be testifying and working with, because it had to do with murder, and it was kind of a parallel situation where this video gamer, the mother was trying to stop him from gaming, and by accident broke the shield and the gaming equipment on his face, so he couldn't [inaudible 00:07:38] play. There was apparently a loaded shotgun in the house, and he killed her. So I think those are probably extremes, but they're real. They were real then, and this case, like I said, is very recent. It's real now.
August Brice: Wow. That just takes my breath away. That's incredible. I know I can envision something like that happen, but so many people kind of tease about internet addiction. You know, you see somebody on their phone a lot, "Oh, you're addicted." I mean, even people who write articles about people, calling them addicted, say, "Hey, I'm looking at the news. I'm checking my stocks. I'm texting. I'm searching for things. How can you say I'm addicted?" Why don't we take this disorder seriously?
Kimberly Young: Well, I think one, Americans tend to be more cautious than other cultures. I mean, it is an accepted disorder in many cultures. China, Korea, Taiwan, for example, they have mandatory treatment. They have public service announcements and education and prevention programs. America is really lagging behind on this particular issue. For example, a few years ago, I spoke at the first International Congress on Internet Addiction Disorders, and that was in Milan, Italy. I mean, there must have been like 15 translators there, just so we could talk to each other. I mean, literally, it was a world congress, all expressing what we're seeing in our respective countries. And really the main point became, America wasn't acknowledging this quick enough or fast enough. This month I'm going to-
August Brice: Why, though? Why aren't we? Why aren't we?
Kimberly Young: Well, we're conservatives. I mean, we also don't have a mandatory healthcare system. China.
August Brice: So it all ties in.
Kimberly Young: For example, we don't have a government-based healthcare system that does this, so it's really from the ground up. It's a grass root efforts to get any disorder, I think, acknowledged. And certainly we still are trying to figure out alcoholism or drug dependence in our country, and how to treat that. So internet addiction becomes less important. You also have lobbyists that certainly don't want to hear that internet addiction is a real problem, because it obviously cuts into sales. But much like Phillip Morris and the nicotine industry, we went for years knowing in the research that nicotine was addictive, yet we glamorized it, we had Joe Camel catering to teenagers, lots of movie stars smoking all the time. But it wasn't until a class action lawsuit came about that really we started changing our norms and our values about smoking. Same thing with alcoholism. There was lots of research that cited alcoholism as a real problem, but it really wasn't until Betty Ford got up and said, "I'm an alcoholic," that was the tipping point. She was so respected, and then it became real. We had a face to it. So I think we're still waiting for that tipping point in America, and certainly you have a lot of political reasons why it doesn't get as acknowledged as maybe other additions, but when you look at the history of other addictions, it took them a long time too to get acknowledged.
August Brice: Well, we're still rolling with tobacco. I just saw the PSAs that the tobacco companies are paying for, saying that they actually design cigarettes to be addictive, and this is obviously a warning to youth. So we're still trying to break through. And I want to know right now, how can we prevent internet addiction?
Kimberly Young: Well, one of the things that I was intrigued by, especially when I was at this world congress, was what Korea is doing. They've probably been the leader out of any country that I've seen on how they're trying to deal with this. They do a great deal of prevention. At young ages, like right when kindergarten, first grade, second grade, with kids directly in school systems, and I found that to be very proactive about it. Like if you can educate kids to find a balance, a healthy use, kind of like food addiction. I talk a great deal about digital diet, digital nutrition. I compare it to treating food, because oftentimes, we're looking at moderated and healthy use of technology, so if you go back to that premise and you teach young children. Technology's good. Nobody's saying it's bad, it's very useful and productive, but you don't want to play games, you don't want to look at porn, you don't want to just make your whole life sedentary around computers. You want to actually be also active in physical education, eating well, exercising. And so that's a lot of what I think we could be applying here in America as well.
August Brice: Well, sure, that's what I talk about at Tech Wellness, just balance with our technology. I love the diet. It makes perfect sense, but how really can we incorporate that, because it's, like I said, the smartphone's the Oreo cookie of technology? It's just so delicious and fun, and it's designed, even, I think, more than sugar, to suck us in and make us feel good. So really, how do we deal with that? I've heard make it a gray screen, make it not as interesting. Okay, that's one thing. Well, you have a great program for kids, the 3-6-9-12, which I think is awesome. I want you to talk about that for a minute. But now that we're faced with it and we've already drank the Kool-Aid, how can we taper back and do so happily?
Kimberly Young: Well, for any one of us, we need to recognize our own behavior. When you're talking about, like, just smartphones, I don't really consider that as much of an addiction as just chronic checking. It's more of a compulsive sort of behavior where we chronically look at our phones, we need our phones around us. I did a TED Talk a few years ago. One of the things that came out of that for me was, why don't we all do a 48-hour digital detox, where we plug our phone in, we don't look at it for 48 hours at least?
August Brice: You're speaking to me. I love it.
Kimberly Young: And just seeing how we feel with that, just sit with that. Now granted, if you're a surgeon on call, that might not be the time to do it, but most of us could really live without the technology for at least a few days, and then experience it. Instead of going to look at your phone, there's voids that we fill. You're sitting at the doctor's office, you check your phone. We don't know how to be bored anymore. We don't know how to be in solitude without media all around us. So I say take that time and observe, and then when you do pick up your phone, have very clear boundaries. Use it maybe an hour in the morning, then put it back. Maybe at five o'clock you check it again. Most of the time we are just mindlessly checking our phone. Oh, let's see what's a new post on Facebook or Instagram or whatever we're looking at. It's not like we really need to be doing this kind of activity all the time, and if we're more aware of our behavior, it's sort of like the choices you make with eating. It comes right down to it. You can eat the healthy fruits and vegetables, you can eat a bag of donuts. That's your choice. So you can have a good balanced use of technology. I'm not saying eliminate it. It's a moderated and controlled use versus binging on it and being more chronic with it. And that becomes more about self-awareness, and self-restraint to some extent. I mean, for most of us, we don't suffer from a true addiction. I'm not talking about the video gamers that spend 12 to 18 hours a day gaming and sit there so long they get blood clots in their legs. I'm not talking about that. Then that's more treatable. That's more inpatient care, looking at other dynamics going on with the client, depression, social anxiety, those kind of things. But for your average user, I think it's just raising awareness and kind of making a habit out of not checking it.
August Brice: And so that helps us not cross the line and become quote-unquote "addicted"?
Kimberly Young: It does. I mean, to me, there's a model that I've used in most of the talks I've given, we have to disconnect to reconnect. And so really, when we disconnect from our devices, we get to talk to each other face-to-face. I mean, the greatest sin I see is the family sitting around the kitchen table at dinnertime on their devices, modeling that behavior. Kids are on their portables, and everybody's not talking. I mean, the best thing I used to do as a kid was go out with my parents on a Sunday drive, and we'd talk, because there was no distractions. And now everybody brings their devices in the car, and nobody's really talking to each other anymore. So I think just getting back to basics, having tech-free time every night at home, very important kind of things to practice.
August Brice: There's so many health benefits of that, and I grew up the same way you did. There weren't devices. And so we did that with our children. We made sure that we had three dinners at home a week, that was very popular back then, connecting the family. And of course, there was never a device allowed at dinner, and still in my home, that's what we do, we drop them. We drop them when we come in. It just feels good for me, but I don't know how we can convince other families that that could actually bring them benefits.
Kimberly Young: Well, I think like anything else, the more education, the more public service announcements we can promote, because right now it's still too new. There's more messages on using it with technology of schools. Like when I worked with a couple of state governments, and the problem they have is they give so many dollars for technology in the classroom, they don't really want to say it's addictive. Yet they're finding that that's what kids are doing, is they're playing games and they're downloading all kinds of things that have nothing to do with their homework or school. So it becomes a problematic issue for teachers. So we really need more of an educational component for parents, I think, to say hey look, this isn't just a benign tool. There's ramifications to it. It's useful, but to a point. We also have to practice all these other good habits. I consider it much harder to be a parent today, because like you said, we didn't have the devices when we were kids. There was nothing like this. And so now you're competing as a parent against all these devices, but the research, disturbingly so, is showing how children, like infants now, have access to technology, and it's creating social problems. They're more isolated. They're not playing in teams and groups. They don't know how to learn how to do face-to-face conversation. Or they're obese because they're sedentary in front of computers and not exercising. I mean, we're just starting to see some very significant problems the younger children start on technology.
August Brice: Well, what you're saying is, we're training them to become addicted.
Kimberly Young: Well, we're encouraging it, yes.
August Brice: I asked you this earlier, and I'm not sure I was clear, but how do you know for sure when it's crossed the line, and how do you know when there's still hope to pull back?
Kimberly Young: Well again, like any addition, how do you know? Well, until it gets bad. How do you know somebody's a social drinker versus an alcoholic? How do you know? You don't until it gets bad enough, till the guy gets a DWI or has a car accident or it's significant. And that's usually the same thing with any other addiction, until it's significant, there's consequences, there are clearly-defined sets of behaviors that are habitual and now adaptive, then it's addiction. That's how you know. There's no big ... when somebody hits rock bottom, hopefully they'll want to dig themselves out of that hole, but even then, I meet addicts every day, whether they're alcoholics or internet addicts, that are living a great deep denial, rationalizing their behavior. They don't want to give it up. Quite frankly, they like it. I meet a lot of alcoholics that are saying, "I like my alcohol. I'm not giving it up for you or my wife or anybody else." So until somebody really wants to change, they can't.
August Brice: Right. I had a friend who's a gambling addict, and he put himself on the no-casino list. So his face is posted in security at all the casinos, and he is not allowed in. He actually went into a casino, and they escorted him out. That got me thinking, it's almost as though we have to have these super-critical, strong boundaries, if we're on the edge and we realize that we are. And that's hard to do.
Kimberly Young: Well, yes. I think that's really the point. Until you're ready to look at your own behavior and be self-aware about any of it, I mean whether we're talking about food addictions, internet addiction, how much do you drink? I have a lot of doctor friends, and they say we always ask how much alcohol do you consume in a week, and we always, like, double that, whatever the person says on medical exams, because everybody kind of tends to underestimate how many drinks they might consume in a day. So I think we all have to take accounting for our own behavior. Whether it's the internet or alcohol, it's no different. We just have to do that. It's not easy, though.
August Brice: Before we go, I want to talk about your Restore Recovery program, because I feel like it's a toolkit that a family or a neighborhood could access and actually make sure that if somebody was on the edge, that they brought them back. Do you see your Restore Recovery Toolkit that way?
Kimberly Young: I do. A few years ago, I designed it, because one, one of my roles is as an educator. I travel around the country. I do workshops at hospitals, addiction clinics, community mental health centers, teaching how to assess and treat internet addiction. And right now, because it's still so new, unlike other disorders, there's no certification or standard of care in the practitioner side of it. People can hang out a shingle and say yeah, I'm an internet addiction expert, but they might not have any training or have done any research in the area, which I think is a disservice. So I created Restore Recovery as the first empirically-based training program. It goes from the beginning, how do we assess a problem? What's the context? What's the problematic application? Is it pornography, is it gaming, is it shopping online? What is it? How is it accessed? Then looking at other related factors. Is the person also suffering from psychological depression or anxiety? Then it looks at actual treatment. How do you change somebody's rationalizations? How do you attack those kind of distortions that justify the behavior? How do you make observable changes of behavior? What are your goals? How do you prevent relapse, especially in the age of technology, where you're surrounded by it? So the program primarily is really training for therapists, but it takes it at an introductory level, assuming the therapist doesn't have a lot of knowledge into the technology and the internet, but basically could build on. There's videos, there's three streaming videos that take you through these kind of steps. And Restore's actually an acronym for the steps, like R stands for something, E stands for something, and you go through this information and treatment process. It can also be used as a self-help tool, because we've seen how people have been able to buy it, use it as a family. It spurs conversation. Where do we access the technology? If you have, like, three devices at home and a laptop and a desktop or something, I mean, how do you harness that in? Have maybe one area of the home, where you just only access your technology. Families get talking about how much time they're spending on the internet. I mean, it's a great ability to discuss it through the program, because it is elementary enough that, really, families or a therapist wanting to learn more about the process can learn from it. It includes the assessment tools, handouts, pamphlets, all kinds of things to really ... you can apply right at the get-go.
August Brice: So families or counselors at schools? I mean, I think really what we're talking about is addiction prevention.
Kimberly Young: Well, we are. And again, just some training in it, because right now there's nothing. When we talk about standard of practice, I shouldn't be able to hang out a shingle and say I'm a gambling addiction expert if I'm not, if I haven't had any training in that. So right now, too many people are starting to say they know about internet addiction, but have no training. What I've been trying to work with, especially with, say, governing bodies, the American Psychological Association because I'm a psychologist, but what is the standard of training here? What's the standard of care? But then that does trickle down to, we can also apply it to a self-help focus, if you will, where families and just spouses, partners, anybody with a problem can really benefit from this.
August Brice: Oh, I'm so glad that you're doing this, because I would imagine professionally you're also working on a certification program, correct, for everyone else, or somebody's working on that?
Kimberly Young: Yes. Yes. But until it's legitimized in terms of insurance reimbursement, we can't push all that forward as quickly as we'd like to.
August Brice: Do you have a group of people that you can currently recommend?
Kimberly Young: I don't, but I'm sure the American Psychological Association or whatever keeps track of referrals. I mean, that's just not my focus, is referrals.
August Brice: And what about your Net Addiction Center?
Kimberly Young: Oh, we do treatment, so people come to us. We provide anything from individual counseling, family counseling, marital counseling. We do some inpatient work, depending on the situation and needs of the person.
August Brice: And when do you recommend inpatient care? At what point?
Kimberly Young: Well obviously, if the person's gotten to the point that they're not functioning at all in their day-to-day life. For example, most of the people that are hospitalized are video game addicts, young men in their 20s, been kicked out of maybe two or three colleges, living at home in their parents' basement, can't hold a job, won't do anything except game for 12 hours a day.
August Brice: Critical?
Kimberly Young: They're very critical at this point, and they suffer from social anxiety and many other problems, so really they need to be stabilized. They need to go through some detox. They need to go through, I think, deeper evaluation, certainly, than let's say, on the other extreme, maybe a marital couple. Dad's been downloading pornography on the internet. Mom wants to leave. They're trying to save their marriage, but they're coming in more on an outpatient basis to try and figure out what those dynamics are that drive that behavior.
August Brice: Okay. I love this, because we're creating awareness for everyone. And of course, we have your test on our site, so if you are curious and you're wondering, or if you are going to take it on behalf of someone else and put in their behavior, you can do that. We've got the little quiz on techwellness.com. We invite you to take it, and then we have some solutions, and of course, we point you to Dr. Young's books and, of course, the Restore Recovery program. I'm so excited about this. Thank you so much, Dr. Young. Oh, and before we go, I'd like to ask everyone, so I'm going to ask you, do you have a guilty technology pleasure?
Kimberly Young: You know, no. I thought about that, and I thought well, not really. I feel like I'm in front of my computer, writing and answering emails and dealing with my own students as a college professor. I don't find I have any kind of guilty pleasure. I mean ...
August Brice: No shopping?
Kimberly Young: No, no. I would say probably I check my Facebook and I check Yelp, like if I know we're traveling somewhere to a new city and I want to check out the restaurants and the menus and things. I would say that's the main thing, and maps. I'm always amazed. As a kid, I had the TripTik from AAA, and we'd get in a new state, you'd flip over the thing and it all in like gold highlighter, and now I'm amazed. I just punch into my phone, and boom, it gets me where I need to go. So I probably use that the most.
August Brice: I'll take it. It's good. It's actually great, because it's so true. Maps are delicious, aren't they, compared to what we went through when we were kids with those binders? Oh, thank you so much, Dr. Young. Have a wonderful day, and we'll talk soon.
Kimberly Young: Thank you for having me, really. All right, take care. Bye-bye.
August Brice: Okay, you too. Bye-bye.
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