Most people don't realize that hours spent surfing online could be a symptom of Internet Addiction Disorder. Now German parents whose children show signs of the affliction can send them to a unique camp to get help.
Social, health and behavioral problems can stem from excessive Internet use
Often the butt of jokes and ridicule, Internet addicts are seen as geeky types who sit for hours on end in darkened rooms, converse only in chat rooms and have virtual relationships with the complete strangers who live thousands of miles away. In the cold light of every day life, such people seem at odds with the normal world around them.
While perhaps extreme, few realize that this stereotype lifestyle is very much the standard existence for many Internet addicts and that rather from being a joke, it is a huge problem that is affecting the Web generation all over the world.
Germany, too, has its share of cases. Although there are no exact statistics, experts say the number of Internet addicts in the country is close to 1 million, which amounts to about 3 percent of the German online population.
"The percentage has remained steady, but the number of Internet users has risen (over the past two years) from 25 to 30 million," André Hahn of the market research organization Research International told Deutsche Welle in a recent interview.
Much of the increase in Internet addiction is among children and young teenagers who spend increasing amounts of time playing computer games or surfing the Internet. And because Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) has a very loose framework of diagnosis and is yet to be recognized formally as a chronic psychological problem, it goes unaddressed by many parents. Even more have no idea that help is at hand.
First Intenet addiction camp in Europe
Those seeking professional help now can take advantage of a new project, a summer camp in the seaside town of Boltenhagen, northern Germany. Set up by the German social security services, it is the first camp of its kind in Europe and aims to wean children off computers by showing them that other aspects of life can be just as enthralling.
Not a computer screen in sight.
Located on one of the most beautiful coastal strips on the Baltic Sea, the children are encouraged to spend as much time as possible outdoors with daily computer allowance curtailed to 30 minutes only. There is just one computer on the site which can be used for half an hour a day -- but not for playing games or surfing the net.
Every morning there are counseling sessions held by the camp psychologist followed by supervised physical activities at the beach such as swimming, volleyball and aerobics. Quite a change for the self-confessed addicts who admit to using the web and computer games for up to six hours a day to escape the boredom of everyday life.
Unregulated use at home
In Germany, many school children spend only about four and a half hours a day at school, often coming home at 1.30 p.m. to an empty house if the parents are at work. Without supervision, the time between their arrival and the time their parents come home from work can often be spent surfing, mailing, chatting and playing games on the computer in a darkened room.
Demand for the 60 places has been so high since the camp opened in February that getting a spot can been difficult. The course at the camp lasts for 28 days and in the final week, parents are invited to attend and participate in the counseling and activities in an attempt to understand the problems and dangers facing their children.
All what many people see for most of their day.
But what is so damaging about time spent in front of a computer? Many people at work spend eight hours a day in front of a screen; does this mean all those people who work at a keyboard are addicts too?
Looking for signs of MOUSE
Research carried out by experts at the University of Florida in the United States has pinpointed a number of factors important in determining whether someone suffers from IAD or not. According to Nathan Shapira of the university’s Brain Institute, Internet activity becomes troublesome when it interferes with someone's job or social life.
The researchers have compiled the problems central to the disorder under the acronym MOUSE: More than intended time spent online; Other responsibilities neglected; Unsuccessful attempts to cut down; Significant relationship discord because of use; and Excessive thoughts or anxiety when not online.
The problems the children experience are mostly related to social interaction and physical ailments caused by bad diet and lack of exercise. Children tend to spend hours at the computer alone, snacking rather than eating regular meals. One of the children at the camp, Daniel, who is 13, weighs 110 kilograms, has no friends at school and has been in constant trouble with his teachers. On average, he would spend four hours a day in front of the computer and a further eight in front of the television. These are typical manifestations of the disorder in children, according to Dr. Simone Trautsch, the camp psychologist.
Building confidence and esteem
Dr. Trautsch offers advice in her counseling sessions on how to make friends, maintain a healthy diet and build self-confidence. Many of the children have stepped back from society completely and have lost the ability to interact with other people.
The camp organizers say that first results have been encouraging, with most of the children returning home with at least some of their self-confidence restored. More importantly perhaps, they also leave determined to make some changes in their once-Internet dominated lifestyle.