While working on my latest book, “Cell Jail,” about internet, phone, and screen addiction, I found a book called Irresistible by Adam Alter. He related a study of heroin addiction in America among veterans returning from Vietnam. At the time, heroin use was quite rare in the United States (.005%) and therefore it was a subject somewhat easy to study.
Lee Robins, a professor of psychiatry and sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, was given a government contract to track the returning soldiers. She interviewed all the addicts, and found something quite amazing: whereas in the general population, 95% of addicts relapsed. Only 5% stayed clean. But among the returning soldiers, it was 180 degrees opposite: only 5% relapsed and 95% stayed clean!
The results seemed too good to be true. Normally in medicine and science, changes of one or two percent can be expected, not changes of 90% or more. It turned out, other researchers found, that memories were embedded in the soldiers that helped trigger their addiction. Once removed from Vietnam’s jungles and put back in American society, the soldiers “escaped the cues that went along with the act of shooting up.”
Researchers concluded that there was more to addiction than an addictive personality—that environment was a factor as well. A gaming addict, admitted to Worchester Academy, who was also a great athlete, had become addicted to playing “World of Warcraft.”
He got in a “guild” or a group of players and played every night. His weight ballooned to 235, he started losing his hair, and he quit the football team due to what he called Warcraft “binges.” Although he went into addiction recovery, it was critical that he understand that you can’t just “remove” the internet from life, but that you had to manage it. He did well . . . until he decided to return to his guild.
He then spent five weeks alone in his apartment gaming, having food brought in, playing 20 hours a day. Hitting rock bottom—not even bathing for days at a time—the young man went back to recovery. This time, however, he came out knowing he had to change his environment and never return to his fellow players.
The more we learn about addictions, including social media, phones, and gaming, the more it’s clear they are nearly as dangerous and deadly as other forms of addiction—it may just take a little longer for the harms to become apparent.