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Do you need digital rehab?

Technical addiction is gaining steam. How can you keep your online habits in check?

Jen Weigel

Lessons for life

February 24, 2011

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Do you spend hours at work on Facebook? Check your accounts in the middle of the night? Get irritated when you can't update your status during dinner? You might need digital rehab.

"This is not something to be taken lightly," says Dr. Hilarie Cash, cofounder of the reSTART Internet Addiction Recovery Program. "China and South Korea have declared digital addiction to be their No. 1 health threat. … But in the United States, it's hard to get people to take this addiction seriously because it's so socially acceptable."

According to a 2010 social media addiction study by Retrevo, 27 percent of those surveyed under the age of 35 admitted to checking their social media pages such as Twitter and Facebook more than 10 times a day. Cash started her recovery program a year and a half ago because she noticed the resources for treatment of this type were so limited, but the cases kept piling up.

"What people don't realize is that essentially all addictions are the same," she explains. "They result from an overstimulation in the brain of the reward pathway."

Cash offers inpatient and outpatient care for digital addicts between the ages of 15 and 38. Those who choose the inpatient option spend 45 days on a 5-acre facility in Fall City, Wash., with no electronics. Therapists work with the patients and do assessments to see what's driving the condition.

"When you take people whose social skills are limited because they've been digitally dependent for long periods of time, and force them to interact with others, it can be quite challenging," she says. "We often find the digital addiction stems from other issues or emotional traumas. While it's not as intense as a chemical withdrawal, we see anxiety, depression, and other withdrawal side effects when they are away from technology. It's a very real disorder."

As with any addiction, there are levels of severity. What if you're only experiencing the digital distractions on a limited basis? Maybe you're having trouble getting work done because you're too enthralled with the discussion a friend is having on their Facebook wall? Rather than heading to rural Washington, installing the "Facebook Rehab" or "E-mail Rehab" extensions on your computer could be your ticket to managing your addiction. These two new Google Chrome browser extensions developed by Quickrr are already gaining steam, especially with concerned employers.

"The Facebook Rehab tool enables the user to pick the amount of time he wishes to spend on Facebook each day," says Avi Goldfinger, CEO of Quickrr. "As the rehab process continues the user can add more and more restrictions to his setup by further limiting the hours of day he can use Facebook. There's a timer that shows you how many minutes you have left to use in that day."

And as awareness over this addiction continues to rise, Goldfinger says monitoring behaviors early on can help prevent disruptive patterns from gaining steam.

"Keeping your job has never been more important, but relationships and ensuring your kids stay safe (and productive) while online is just as important," he says. "In just a few months our tools have been installed by over 200,000 people, most of which reside in the United States.

"We're not out there to stop people from using Facebook or e-mails, just to help them do it in a smart and efficient way."

Here are some tips to help keep your digital use in check.

Try to avoid checking your Facebook account on weekends. If two days off is too shocking to your system, start with one day and work your way up.

Force yourself to turn your handheld devices off at bedtime. Be sure to put them in a place where you won't be tempted to check them during the night. "If you don't activate the reward pathway, your sleep will improve," says Cash.

Take a "tech-free" time out each day with your family or loved ones. "This could even be just taking a walk by yourself, or at a meal with your kids," says Cash. "When we stop having conversations with others, we forget how to socialize and revert back to our computers for comfort. It's important to keep these mental pathways active."

jweigel@tribune.com