Michigan teen who skipped school to play video games goes through treatment in the wilderness

"I just can’t take the regular schooling anymore," Josh said.

ByABC News
May 19, 2017, 8:10 AM

— -- By the time Al and Christine’s son Josh was 14 years old, he was so consumed with playing video games that he stopped going to school.

"He just said, 'Hey, I’m dropping out,'" his father Al told ABC News "20/20."

Josh would stay up late to play well into the night and sleep in late the next day. His mother said he would often play for as many as 12 hours straight, for as much as 60 hours in a week. They tried to talk to him, Al said, but made little progress.

"It’s like, 'You’ve got to stop ... you've got to close it down,'" Al said. But he said his son replied, "I can't."

Their son’s obsession with online gaming began in 8th grade, Al and Christine said. The turning point was when Josh built himself a gaming computer and installed it in his room, Christine added.

"Playing games is just extremely relaxing to me," Josh said. "I guess the way I play is like being on drugs because I’m just not even trying, if you understand what I’m saying. I just watch myself play basically."

Sometimes Al said he would unplug the internet router to prevent Josh from getting online, but that Josh would respond with "emotional outbursts."

Josh's obsession with online gaming began in 8th grade.

Josh's lack of sleep and anxiety led to struggles at home and at school.

"I just can’t take the regular schooling anymore," Josh said. "It’s just not right for me."

Christine said they tried taking the computer away many times, and Al would even try hiding the computer in his car, but it was difficult. Sometimes, they said, Josh would get so angry he would punch holes in the walls.

"When we did take it away, there was a lot of problems in our house with his behavior," she said. "We get these reactions that are probably not like the average kid ... we see some withdrawal symptoms that are probably not very healthy."

The family contacted Michigan-based expert Kevin Roberts, who counsels families all over the United States regarding excessive technology usage. As a self-proclaimed recovering "gaming addict," Roberts said he understands what Josh’s gaming compulsion is like.

"My read of the situation is that you don’t know how to engage intensely with anything other than the video games," Roberts told Josh. "I think it’s become excessive and I think it’s going to get worse."

Roberts is the author of two books, "Cyber Junkie: Escape the Gaming and Internet Trap" and "Get Off That Game Now!"

"Most of the people I work with are what you could call 'gaming addicts,'" he said. "They're people who have problems regulating their screen time. It doesn't have to be just gaming, it could be texting, it could be the smart phone."

After talking with Al and Christine, Roberts told Josh that his mother was afraid to get rid of the gaming system for good because of how he reacts when she tries to take it away.

"That's not my fault," Josh said. "It's not my fault that she's scared of me."

"She's not afraid of you as a human being," Roberts told him. "She's afraid of how you will react if she takes away the games, if she takes away the computer, and your father is afraid of that as well."

After meeting with Roberts, the family was put in touch by “20/20” with Dr. David Rosenberg, the chair of the pediatric psychiatry department at Wayne State University and the Detroit Medical Center. Rosenberg is currently looking for teenagers with excessive digital use for a study funded by the National Institutes of Health. He’s researching a theory that digital overdosing may affect brain health.

As he has done with other study participants, Rosenberg recommended that Josh have an MRI brain scan. He said the initial results were concerning.

"[The] processing center of the brain ... is markedly reduced. It should be much higher, there should be much more activity," Rosenberg said, looking at Josh’s scans. "This is a kid in trouble."

Josh’s parents decided to send him to a wilderness program called Outback Therapeutic Expeditions, located in the mountains of the Utah wilderness, where he wouldn’t have any access to electronic devices for more than two months. The “unplugged” curriculum placed Josh, along with counselors, therapists and a handful of other teens, two hours away from civilization, where he had to learn life skills, coping mechanisms and the chance to analyze why he games so much.

The idea seemed ridiculous to Josh, who said, "It’s just kind of stupid. I just play video games and I have to go to a rehab for it."

"This is not to punish Josh," Al said. "This is to help him go through a program to reset, reset himself ... there are other things in life to offer beyond gaming all the time."

At Outback, participants have to learn wilderness survival skills to live out in the woods. McKay Deveraux, Outback’s executive director, said it usually takes kids "several weeks" to learn how to take care of themselves.

Josh spent 10 weeks in the Outback wilderness program, which agreed to waive its fee in order to bring attention to the growing issue of extreme digital usage. Over the course of his stay, Josh and the other boys in the program had to learn how to build a fire, find shelter, carve their own utensils and prepare their own meals.

Deveraux said the idea is to be able "to kind of reset everything neurologically and mentally by taking them away from all the distractions of their typical life."

Outback’s clinical director Greg Burnham worked with Josh. Over time, Josh realized the root of his gaming compulsion.

Josh, pictured with his parents, spent 10 weeks in the Outback wilderness program.

"My issue is that I had gaming addiction," he said. "I had anxiety and depression and basically I'd just use it as like escaping from it ... I literally skipped school for a month just to play video games."

When he reunited with his family weeks later, his parents said Josh seemed like a whole new person.

During their family meeting with Burnham to discuss his progress, Josh said he realized he had been isolating himself. They all agreed that before returning home his computer had to go.

"I guess it's just kind of been a pretty insane journey, just to be able to mentally and physically change" Josh said. "I just feel like I've changed a lot."