By | November 17, 2023
Upset girl sitting in the dark while using her smartphone.  The light from the screen illuminates her face.

“Hi, my name is Sarah* and I’m an internet and technology addict.”

So began a meeting on a recent Wednesday afternoon, when 18 people quietly gathered on a Zoom call. Text in their small video boxes indicated that they came from places as diverse as Oregon, India and Namibia.

Sarah and the other participants 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 managing compulsive Internet use. Launched with just a few founding US groups in 2017, it has quickly grown to have thousands of members around the world, with more than 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 including overeating, overspending and gambling. Now, the traditionally abstinence-based program has been modified for a new choice: our phones.

In 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 scrolling to video game addiction and TV binge watching. For most, the goal is not abstinence, but manageability.

Aubrey, a member of the ITAA, said that when she attended her first meeting nine months ago, she spent more than 12 hours a day cycling through various social media apps, compulsively posting and checking who had liked or engaged 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 updating my pages over and over again – I couldn’t stop myself,” she said. “Every day I told myself, ‘OK, tomorrow I’ll quit.’ But I couldn’t. It was killing me.”

Defining boundaries

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 United States – but research is increasingly showing that it has similarities to more widely recognized disorders such as alcoholism.

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

Unlike substance use disorders, Internet and gaming addiction is considered a type of “behavioral addiction.” The only behavioral addiction recognized by the DSM-5 is gambling disorder, which was added in 1980. But such behavioral or “process addictions” have a number of similarities to chemical addiction, says Lawrence Weinstein, chief medical officer of the American Addiction Center.

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

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

Such was the case for Aubrey, who said her compulsive use of social media is “taking over her life”. She now attends daily meetings and considers herself sober from internet addiction – meaning she has stayed true to her self-imposed rules for responsible use. She can now hold down a full-time job in a field she’s passionate about – which ironically means posting on social media sometimes.

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

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

For Aubrey, a “bottom line” — programs speak for a hard line whose violation would be considered a relapse — is checking social media likes, scrolling her feed or looking at Instagram stories. “Intermediate lines” are potentially triggering behaviors that should be navigated with care. Aubrey still uses the internet for work-related posts, while checking in with a sponsor on the show who keeps her accountable.

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

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“No longer a single approach”

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

“We no longer require a one-size-fits-all approach, which is how addiction treatment has been handled in the past,” says Emily Brunner, a Minnesota-based family physician who works in addiction treatment. “The most common way to approach things now is to individually assess and match 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 become popular—including Smart Recovery, Recovery Dharma, and Celebrate Recovery.

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

ITAA members are also quick to say that 12-step programs are not the only way out of addictions like theirs – but they are often the cheapest and most accessible. Steven, a co-founder of ITAA, said he hit his “rock bottom” six years ago when he spent almost all his waking hours gaming, scrolling social media and bingeing online content – from podcasts to TV shows. Suicidal and hopeless, he searched online for help 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 per month.

ITAA and other 12-step programs, meanwhile, are completely free. Steven said the lack of resources for people like him underscores how misunderstood Internet addiction is, with few resources dedicated to its research.

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

A staunch atheist, Steven said he was initially afraid to join a 12-step program because of its focus on finding a “higher power” — a common criticism of Alcoholics Anonymous. But he eventually found the program strengthened his relationship with atheism.

“A very important part of being an atheist, to me, is a commitment to the truth,” he said. “I realized that it was an illusion to think that I could control my addiction – to think that I could overcome a neurological condition. I learned to accept non-judgmental support from other people who understand my problem and accept me.”

Steven said he realizes there’s some irony in finding so much support for his internet addiction in online meeting rooms — and there are certainly people on the show who prefer to just meet in person. But in many ways he reinforced some of the basic principles of the ITAA program to find help online.

“It’s not about removing technology — technology is really wonderful in many ways. It’s about learning what’s healthy and unhealthy for us personally,” he said. “It’s definitely possible to get sober from the Internet on the Internet .”

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

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