Program developed to help young Internet addicts

In the year since Dr. Bruce Ballon has been running a program for Internet addicts, he’s seen about 50 young people pass through the doors and another 50 or so receive help over the phone.

TORONTO — In the year since Dr. Bruce Ballon has been running a program for Internet addicts, he’s seen about 50 young people pass through the doors and another 50 or so receive help over the phone.

And while he wouldn’t label the situation a crisis, he says demand for help is way up and parents are part of the solution, just as they are part of the problem.

“I often ask parents, ”Have you got BlackBerrys, smartphones, iPhones?“ says Ballon.

“Are you answering emails at three in the morning, are you role modelling things for your kids, are you angry at them playing the game when you’re answering emails at 3 a.m. on Sunday? It’s a society issue too.”

Ballon heads the Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health program catering to the burgeoning field of gambling, video game and Internet-related addictions.

“It’s not like we’re seeing tons and tons of this, like it’s a huge epidemic, but what we are noticing is, because of the 21st century, people need to start developing some healthy guidelines and relationships with multimedia and technology.”

Dr. Brent Conrad, a clinical psychologist who studies video game and Internet addiction, says it’s difficult to quantify the extent of the problem because the condition is not defined in the profession’s handbook — the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” — published by the American Psychiatric Association.

“Unfortunately, it is common for different studies to use different criteria — which of course, lead to different conclusions — but in general, most studies suggest that from five to 10 per cent of users demonstrate behaviours suggestive of addiction,” he says.

Discussion about “Internet addiction” — a term Ballon hates — has been going on for at least a decade, but it was within the last three to five years that his centre really started to note an increase in concern about kids becoming too obsessed with online profiles or building their rank in the latest video game.

Then the dangers of online obsession hit home for many parents with the sad story of 15-year-old Brandon Crisp. He ran away from his home in Barrie, Ont., in the fall of 2008 after his parents took away his video game system and his body was found three weeks later.

An autopsy suggested he died after falling from a tree.

Ballon cautions against using Crisp’s tale as a case study for what happens when kids become too engrossed in video games.

Few know the whole story and the mitigating factors involved.

“Everyone’s fear about technology and video games came running out and everyone started screaming about predators, the evils of the Xbox and all this sort of stuff,” he says.

“But the question is, did he have depression? If he had come home and not fallen out of the tree and died tragically, would they have just talked about it and gone for help?

“None of us will ever know. But what was illustrated to me in that story was people are really afraid and uncertain about all this technology flying at us. It is a bit overwhelming.”

Ballon says he dislikes the term “Internet addiction” because, often, habitual gaming or web use is just a symptom of other issues.

“Clinically speaking, what we’re noticing is there (are) so many concurrent issues with people coming in with these problems, like depression, anxiety, Asperger’s disorder, family disruption and so on,” he says.