Andy Leach says he has seen first hand how internet addiction can essentially turn people into drug addicts, consumed by getting their next fix.
Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) is defined as any online related, compulsive behaviour which interferes with normal living - it's also known as internet dependency and compulsivity. Leach's son (who will remain anonymous) has undiagnosed IAD for gaming.
Leach says his son is an extremely gifted individual, excelling in both academia and sports. At his high school he competed for the country in karate, was on the top basketball team and was in top classes for Maths and English.
“Things didn’t really spiral until last year,” says Leach. “He started to withdraw from his passions, such as basketball. He was only 14 and he was gambling away everything.”
"G for gambling, G for gaming," says Leach, who notes the similarities between IAD and gambling addiction.
Leach says it’s important to draw the comparison between the two, and to treat the latter as the serious mental illness it is. Gambling is part of the Mental Health Act - which covers treatments for mental illnesses in New Zealand - but it’s proving very difficult to get IAD recognised, says Leach.
This is necessity as there are an increasing number of cases of IAD throughout New Zealand, and a lack of awareness and knowledge of proven solutions, says Leach. When he began to research IAD and become aware of what it entailed, he found six similar cases to his son immediately – in fact, five boys from the same school had recently "crashed" due to IAD.
When he began to talk about it openly, he quickly found out about 20-25 individuals who were also suffering from IAD at varying levels. Leach says it’s going to get worse before it gets better, and we need to look for solutions now. “We know that a wave is coming,” he says.
IAD was initially proposed by Ivan Goldberg, M.D., in 1995 and it was widely believed to be a satirical hoax. Today, countries such as China and Korea have recognised IAD and put programmes and solutions in place to deal with it. “ Overseas they get them off to health and youth camps, take them bush and completely cut them off for weeks on end," says Leach. "The Chinese and Koreans have found it takes three months for the brain to re-set and recalibrate.”
On the other hand, it takes two to three years for addiction to set, says Leach. His son, while appeared to enter a fully fledged addiction in a school term, has said to his father he has been an addict for ten years.
“It started off very innocently,” says Leach. "When he was 3-4 years old he was creating his own campaigns on the game Age of Empires, and as he grew up he would play on the computer and Playstation occasionally, but it was in control." However it didn’t remain this way. “Addiction surreptitiously made its way into our home, we didn’t see it until it was too late.”
As Leach's son grew older, things changed. He began to get pressure from all sides - teachers, peers, even gaming marketing schemes. “Pressure, pressure, pressure, and he broke, he absolutely broke," says Leach.
Games such as World of Warcraft (WOW) and League of Legends (LOL) suck people in, says Leach, particularly young boys. “There are promises of being the best in your country and going to the legends. It’s very gladiatorial, which is attractive to teenage boys.”
As the addiction took hold, Leach noticed his son changing. He was grumpy, withdrawn, he stopped eating and would hardly appear from his room. From school he would go to an internet cafe in the city and then head home where he would continue gaming. He was getting 12 hours of gaming in every day and apparently once spent 72 hours online without a break.
Leach says his son looked and acted like a junkie. He had completely disappeared into a fantasy world, was gaunt, anxious, had sallow skin and acne and even his speech started to slur. Leach and his wife removed every stimulant from the house. They took away access to the internet connection, devices, coffee, cards and money.
When they put the house in lockdown Leach says they saw his son go from a gentle giant to completely hostile and aggressive. They would come home and discover 28 teabags in the sink and he’d found a way to login. Addiction was driving him, says Leach. “He said to me, Dad I can’t stop, I just have to have it.”
Leach says research has been done overseas into the physiology of IAD, and what son was experiencing was not unlike the highs and lows of drug addiction, with intense euphoria and incredible lows. This can lead to depression and anxiety, especially if someone is pre-disposed.
In the case of Leach’s son, the solution was a two month Odyssey programme for the treament of addiction. He was also prescribed melatonin, which helps to boost natural hormones and return individuals to natural sleep cycles. Odyssey is predominantly for those with chemical and alcohol addiction, and Leach says he saw pretty sad and extreme cases.
When released, Leach says his son had significantly improved but it didn’t take long for old patterns to emerge. He would bolt, heading out to get his fix. Leach says one more month could have made the difference, and confirms his son is back in the Odyssey programme. “Whatever he focuses on, he will do well because of his intelligence, but everyone is not as lucky,” he says.
Gaming and using the internet are completely fine in moderation. “This is a cautionary tale about keeping that balance.”
Leach says it’s important to raise awareness so people know this is an issue, where to get help and what to do in this situation. “It’s not about [my son] anymore,” he says. “It’s about so many kids from 10 to 18 who are on the cusp of the generation and connected from the moment they’re born. I’m hearing stories about a number of parents who are battling this.”
Maggie Barry, the MP for Auckland's North Shore, has taken up the cause and is working with Leach to build education, trust and awareness, as well as having it recognised in the Mental Health Act.