O'Brien said an addiction is defined as a compulsive need for something characterized by increasing tolerance, mental and physical harm caused by usage and well-defined withdrawal symptoms, such as depression and anxiety. Almost all universally recognized addictions are for substances such as drugs, alcohol and tobacco, because behavioral addiction is so difficult to pin down. Gambling is currently the only behavioral addiction recognized in the DSM-5.
O'Brien said a lot more research was needed, but he suspected that Internet addiction, at least as it applies to gaming, will eventually become an accepted diagnosis. While he doesn't believe many people would yet meet the criteria for addiction in the United States, he said it's a lot more prevalent in other countries. In North Korea, China and Japan hospital treatment programs for gaming addicts were established more than a decade ago, he said.
While the Bradford program is the country's first program to operate out of a hospital, there are other U.S. programs that address Internet addiction. For example, reSTART, a 45-day residential program near Seattle, has been treating Internet addicts for the past four years. Hillarie Cash, the co-founder of reSTART, said the majority of its patients are young, male gamers, though they are beginning to see some patients who also struggle with a social media obsession.
Young said that the DSM was not the only litmus test for what qualifies as a real mental disorder and what does not. She said she's been studying the idea for more than two decades and is convinced that as Internet usage grows, Internet addiction grows right along with it.
"There's over 20 years of research on this," she said. "If people are suffering and have a real problem, why wait? Why not give them an outlet to deal with it right now?"