When Danny Reagan was 13, he began exhibiting signs of what doctors usually associate with drug addiction. He became agitated, secretive and withdrew from friends. He had quit baseball and Boy Scouts, and he stopped doing homework and showering.
But he was not using drugs. He was hooked on YouTube and video games, to the point where he could do nothing else. As doctors would confirm, he was addicted to his electronics.
“After I got my console, I kind of fell in love with it,” Danny, now 16 and a junior in a Cincinnati high school, said. “I liked being able to kind of shut everything out and just relax.”
Danny was different from typical plugged-in American teenagers. Psychiatrists say internet addiction, characterized by a loss of control over internet use and disregard for the consequences of it, affects up to 8 percent of Americans and is becoming more common around the world.
“We’re all mildly addicted. I think that’s obvious to see in our behavior,” said psychiatrist Kimberly Young, who has led the field of research since founding the Center for Internet Addiction in 1995. “It becomes a public health concern obviously as health is influenced by the behavior.”
Psychiatrists such as Young who have studied compulsive internet behavior for decades are now seeing more cases, prompting a wave of new treatment programs to open across the United States. Mental health centers in Florida, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and other states are adding inpatient internet addiction treatment to their line of services.
Some skeptics view internet addiction as a false condition, contrived by teenagers who refuse to put away their smartphones, and the Reagans say they have had trouble explaining it to extended family.
Anthony Bean, a psychologist and author of a clinician’s guide to video game therapy, said that excessive gaming and internet use might indicate other mental illnesses but should not be labeled independent disorders.
“It’s kind of like pathologizing a behavior without actually understanding what’s going on,” he said.