Caught in the Web

Zach Loafman, a gifted St. Mark's teen, fights an addiction to the Internet.

They say all addicts bottom out. Zach was still spending every spare minute on the Net, sometimes "building," mostly immersed in MUD and the chat channels. He'd been skipping classes all spring; finally he decided to skip school completely. "One day I decided to drive around and then go back home to the Net when my parents were at work. My car and the Internet were the only places that were really mine." After a while, he called from a pay phone to make sure they were gone. But his stepmother answered--it turns out she was home with the flu. So Zach spent the day driving around, only returning home for his ATM card so he could get money for something to eat. When he walked in, his stepmother was talking to his father, and they told Zach they were going to revoke the Net completely. Zach threw the phone across the room, threatened suicide, and stormed out.

The day ended at the psychiatrist's office. And Zach decided to check into Green Oaks Psychiatric Hospital.

"At first, I didn't want to solve the problem even if I could admit I had one," Zach says. "It scared me when I went into Green Oaks and they showed me a list of symptoms of chemical dependency. Except for physical characteristics [you don't suffer withdrawal symptoms if you can't get a Net fix], mine were all the same."

Levy is wary of the term "Internet addict." "There are literally millions of kids who watch four or five hours of TV a day--time spent in a MUD is healthier than that," he argues. "TV is passive; on the Internet you're using your imagination, and you're actually with other people. It's not like a drug. It's more comparable to reading--your brain's engaged, it's a broadening experience. Most people don't understand what goes on on the Internet--they're scared of it. They think these kids are engaged in skulduggery or pornography. Most of what goes on there is an organized activity, a Discovery Zone for bright adolescents.

"Of course, it's not healthy to do anything to the point of exclusion, especially not skipping school. Like any activity, even a pleasurable one, you want to do it with a degree of moderation."

Sherry Cusumano, director of Green Oaks' adolescent unit, says the hospital uses the 12-step program (devised by Alcoholics Anonymous and used by other groups such as Overeaters Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous) as a "framework" or a "map" for addressing a variety of problems, not just addiction. "It's a tool patients can use outside of the hospital, on their own. Some people are addicts, others have bad habits. Green Oaks defines addiction as a behavior that causes consequences in a person's life--if there are dramatic and sudden changes in their peer group, if they went from being quiet to being openly rebellious, if their grades drop, if they abandon family ties that used to be close." By this definition, Zach is an addict. "It's harder to tell with kids; it's more cut and dried when they're adults. The need for privacy is normal, but secrecy is not."

Of course, it's easy to be flip and say that most parents would be thrilled if Internet "addiction" were their kid's biggest pitfall, but depression, dependence, and self-destructive behavior are dangerous problems--no matter how they manifest. Dr. Jerry Lewis, a Dallas psychiatrist who works with children, adolescents, and adults, agrees with Cusumano that "An avid interest becomes an obsession when it interferes with normal activities...when the relationship to the addiction is more important than other relationships." He adds, "Addictions end up as replacements for relationships. Usually an addict is experiencing some kind of pain in their relationships--not necessarily because of the environment; it could be their needs are excessive. So they withdraw from the interpersonal into the perverse relationship--eating, drugs, or whatever--while they continue to starve emotionally." The result is depression.

The first thing to establish to overcome traditional depression is a network of friends to keep yourself balanced. Zach had an Internet full of friends, yet that's what he had to give up. Lewis points out, "The Net is a web of relationships, of course, but they're really just a sliver of a physical relationship, and they require a very intense intimacy."

Levy counters that "physical relationships can be a 'sliver' of a real relationship. You can have a sexual relationship, for instance, where you're not mentally engaged. Lots of relationships are a 'sliver' of a whole relationship."

Zach's craving wasn't for a controlled substance--it was for greater knowledge and for involvement with a peer group, a truer peer group, perhaps, than the one in his physical world. But this drive on the Superhighway was a dead end. He'd lost interest in school; in the hospital, he wasn't sure whether he wanted to go back to St. Mark's at all. His mother says at this point she "shut up, backed off, and let him find his own path" even though she felt strongly that Zach should stick with St. Mark's and go to college--because the things he needs to learn, the tools he needs to use, are there. It's one thing to drop out of college, like Microsoft's Bill Gates did; it would be disaster for Zach to crash before he got there.

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