An image of Mehmet Geren for A Turkish designer, he uses digital collage, combining ancient elements with pop culture.
Hijacking your brain | épisode № 04

Quit digital addiction and touch a tree for 400 $ a day

In a glorious setting in Washington State, nature is used to heal addictions. This episode follows a troubling conversation with Ramsay Brown, understanding the importance of dopamine triggers in technology. Our journalist went to meet some of these teenagers who were once entrapped in their own digital fortress.

He is thin, pale, lanky. Not dirty, but quite untidy. Big glasses, grey eyes, blond hair covering part of his face. There’s no clear direction in his wandering barefoot and slightly hunched back exploring the overwhelming September heat around the big garden, stretching from the edge of the small pond to the front door.

He looks like somebody who hasn’t been exposed to sun rays and fresh air for ages. Which, in his case, is actually true. He’s a digital addict.

Jack!, he gets called and, agitated, he ushers back to the main house. He knows he can’t just go everywhere. He’s here to learn discipline. To stick to rules. And he’s on a strict schedule: 3.30 pm, fitness. The gym is where he must be heading to: «Because getting back in shape is the first thing that these kids need», points out Hilarie Cash, psychotherapist, founder and chief clinical officer at ReStart.

«These kids» are clinically addicts. Phones, video games, YouTube, Reddit, Forum, Chats - you name it. They have been diagnosed as such, although definitions and diagnoses are a slippery matter in this emerging field. They admitted being and are recognized as such by psychotherapists at ReStart, a holistic rehab centre in the outskirts of Seattle, surrounded by pine trees, steep hills and the majesty of nature in one of its purest appearances.

So pure that its curative effect is worth 400 dollars. A day.

That’s the fee charged by ReStart to kids’ families, for a stay that can’t be shorter than 8 weeks: the minimum recovery time. The maximum can be as long as the entire school year. Or, more frequently, until families can’t afford it anymore.

Nevertheless romantically called Heaven’s Field, the facility is located in the countryside of Redmond - a suburban town best known for being the headquarters of Microsoft, the first giant of the computing era.

An image of Mehmet Geren for A Turkish designer, he uses digital collage, combining ancient elements with pop culture.

Thirty-three teens from 13 to 18 have been hosted here in the past 18 months, plus dozens of guys between 18 and 30, mostly in their early 20s, coming from all over the world: US, China, India, Korea, and different parts of Latin America. Mostly men: only seven girls in 10 years joined the rehab. Hard to know if it’s because they are less inclined to let the Internet take over their lives or too fearful of the social stigma to admit it.

In the early days of fall, six people are staying at Heaven’s Field. The house looks furnished out of a design magazine, with its huge arch-shaped windows overlooking woods glowing in red and yellow. Phones and computers are not admitted. Therapists and supervisors know perfectly well that showing screens to their craving clients would be like having a beer around an alcoholic.

Inside the house, a heavy guy slouched on a grey sofa is skimming through the pages of a book titled «The art of golf». One is coming down the stairs, skipping over the invitation decorating the steps: Imagine, Inspire, Explore, Dream. A newcomer, whose parents’ car has just pulled in the driveway, forces himself to smile while the therapist takes him away. He’s not the only one trying to escape unrequired visibility: some kids just don’t want to be seen. Because every story here is a story of pain. «Of guilt and shame», Jack recalls, sitting on the terrace.

Twenty-one, originally from New Jersey, he has spent the last seven years info-binging on the internet - something hard to imagine for anybody over 30. Former addicts describe it as a compulsion to gather information on a certain topic, an irrepressible drive that makes one forget about eating, sleeping, going out, etc. A bulimic urge that wakes you up at night, almost a physical need to search for more information. «I could spend 14 hours straight watching videos or reading pages on Wikipedia about marine biology, jumping from one link to the other without ever stopping. I wasn’t trying to learn anything: I was just fueling myself with anything I could find», he mutters monotonously.

He had been a regular student in elementary and middle school: curious, fond of technology, eager to spend time reading online. Things got worse when he got in high school, and turned ugly when he went to live on campus, on his own, out of his family radar. «At first, I tried to go to class: I was a functional addict, I could still do things», he recalls, describing himself with terms that he must have absorbed during his three months of therapy at Heaven’s Field.

Getting to know yourself is a great ordeal in the recovery plan: digital addiction is just the surface of the problems, therapists say. A powerful escapism from: your family, your difficulties, your life.

«Shortly after I moved on campus I couldn’t control myself anymore and just spent my whole time online. I just couldn’t stop», he goes on explaining. «I can’t even say what I’ve actually read or learnt in these years, it didn’t stay with me: I just needed to continuously find something different to focus on». Finally, «I wasn’t seeing any of the few friends I had, as I felt ashamed of my life. And I didn’t talk to my parents, who were accusing me of doing nothing. So, eventually, I admitted that I had become detrimental to myself and I asked to come here».

Like all those who arrive at ReStart, he doesn’t know when he will be able to leave. «Honestly, I don’t care. I will never want a smartphone again, as I don’t trust myself, I know I will be better without», he adds, casting a shadow on both his self-esteem and recovery.

The repentance may have come too late. Although researchers haven’t come up with definitive proofs yet, digital addiction is believed to cause actual damage to the brain.

«A lot of evidence shows that in kids that have been overexposed to screens the executive function of the brain is underdeveloped. That means less grey matter, which is the nerves, and less white matter, that promotes the nerves communication well with one another», explains Cash, the facility’s psychotherapist.

The extent of the problem will be clearer when the first generation of kids babysitted by YouTube will be grown ups. According to Common Sense Media, a San Francisco based non profit organization that provides research and advice on kids and technology, teens spend an average of nine hours a day online, in front of a screen, in the United States. Hours go down to six for children aged 8 to 12, while toddlers up to eight years old spend at least 50 minutes a day parked in front of videos.

Permanent damage doesn’t have to be the case for everybody arriving at ReStart, but before the clients’ actual condition can be evaluated - therapists call them clients, not patients - they need to get back to a normal level of functioning. Cash:

The overstimulation of the brain, like dopamine hits generated by online activities, induces the so-called tolerance phase: the brain withdraws the receptors that pick up the chemicals, the dopamine. So, if a person wants to get high, he must go to higher levels of those chemicals: the progression of the addiction. It takes 3 to 4 weeks for the brain to take back the receptors: meanwhile the person is in a deficit mood and doesn’t feel good at all, he can be depressed, in a grumpy mood, incapable of reacting. It is only when eventually the receptors are back that he can possibly start to feel better.

Sam probably still hasn’t gotten there. Visibly underweight, he is tall and drawn, his dark skin lusterless. At twenty-seven, he is the oldest around, having lived the last 12 years only in his digital world: video-games, tutorials on YouTube, Reddit topics, forums and a second identity built into the screen. His digital fortress came down recently, the day his parents waited for him at the airport, in his hometown of Denver, ready to leave for London to celebrate his graduation from college. He never showed up. Because he never graduated. He hadn’t gone to class for ages. When they got him out of his dorm room, he hadn’t taken a shower in a week and hadn’t slept in days.

Oddly enough, he admits his family had always been very sensitive to screen exposure: «I couldn’t open a computer until I was 12 or so, and only for school stuff: my mom was very concerned. When I grew up, she would let me use Internet and games for nothing more than an hour a day». A strict approach that she very well could have borrowed from tech gurus in the Valley, who have admitted prohibiting smartphones and tablets to their kids. Sending them to Waldorf schools, immersed in nature and books, with no computers at hand.

«My children are not allowed to use this shit», revealed candidly to the press Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice-president of user growth at Facebook. Obviously being very self indulgent on his personal responsibilities in building «this shit».

Sam’s mom was not equally strict. «We had devices in the house, and I quickly learnt how to cheat her», he acknowledges.

It’s hard to say if he cares at all when telling his story. Although he has been in rehab for almost three weeks, he still seems unfocused: his gaze fogged, words slow and self restrained. «I miss my music here, dance and rock music I listened to while being online. And the idea of being cut off is jarring», Sam looks dejected.

«Nothing happens here», he finally whispers.

Looking at the schedule pinned over the door of the bedroom that he shares with three people, that doesn’t seem true. Four hundred dollars a day will pay for plenty of activities. Wake up call is set at 6.30 in the morning, breakfast at 7 - arriving late at any meal means no food - followed by morning chores, homeschooling or morning therapy. Lunch is at 12, fitness at 3.30, dinner at 7, then mindfulness or yoga practice and finally quiet hours from 9 to 10 pm.

Every once in a while, the daily schedule is replaced by special activities, such as camping in the forest. Hilarie Cash believes that having to provide your own food and roof is a powerful accelerator of the grounding process. It boosts your connection with trees and nature, putting real needs and the ability to fulfill them first.

A Survivor experience for contemporary, young Robinson Crusoes. Except for the fact that the privatized island where kids and supervisors are sent to is property of ReStart. One of many. ReStart real estate counts the mansions where kids live, the nearby ranch filled with animals («To ride horses you need to build trust: it’s a great start in learning how to build relationship» is Cash’s firmest belief) and an extensive headquarter, still under construction at the time of our visit, where clients over 18 attend individual therapy and weekly groups of Internet and technology Addicts Anonymous.

A student gets hands-on with mud spread out on a table as she attends Cedarsong Nature School's outdoor preschool, near Seattle. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren.

Similar to the Alcoholic Anonymous ones, every person needs to take 12 steps of consciousness and improvement, choosing a sponsor, who is usually a previous addict. The guide helps them in creating a detailed plan of how to deal with life in the future — a sort of handbook on how to respond to emotions, difficulties, problems and conflicts without relapsing into addiction.\
«The basis of the addiction is a lack of quality connection», says Cash. A void filled with compulsive chatting, gaming, posting, etc. The opposite of quality connection is screens used as walls to hide behind. It’s apps as substitutes of love.

«We are all victimized by tech: you can be easily overpowered by it if you are not extremely mindful and don’t protect yourself through certain habits», the founder warns firmly*. «The industry is just making tons of money out of us. They behave as the tobacco industry did, which knew perfectly well that cigarettes are unhealthy but persuaded people to buy cigarettes to make money. Until big legal actions against them started. This is the point: if the tech industry doesn’t take things into their own hands, some big class action will force them to*».

In the meantime, she offers a safe harbour to those struggling.

Only if they can afford it.

The sight of the deer trotting in the backyard, staring at unhappy kids doing push ups and squats, is included in the price.