Sweden's first ever internet emergency room opened its doors in Stockholm last month. I guess it was about time, considering Sweden is one of the most connected countries in the world. That said, various scientists, experts and journalists have spent the past few years debating whether internet addiction is even a real thing that needs legitimate treatment centres, or just a modern urban legend.
Patrik Wincent, licensed therapist and founder of the internet ER, would argue the former. And you can understand why, considering his centre receives between ten to 15 phone calls a day from those worried their internet intake is verging on unhealthy.
Prior to setting up the rehab programme, Patrik spent a decade helping video game addicts break free from their controllers, and used to be addicted to games himself. So considering I – like most of my friends – spend the majority of my time online, he seemed like the perfect person to speak to about how I can avoid checking myself in to his internet ER.
VICE: Hey Patrik, do you have time for a chat?
Patrik Wincent: I do. I'm walking and talking, so unless that's a problem for you, let's do it.
Were you using your phone before I called? Are you suffering from digital addiction?
No, I actually have rules for how I manage things. Also, I don't consider that talking on the phone and walking is the same thing as walking and looking at a screen. That's usually what's considered to be a danger, you know – to exclude a fifth of what you see and bend your neck like a hawk. We had a case last week where a guy fell off a tube platform because he was so focused on his mobile phone. He managed to get away from the tracks in time, but it was certainly a warning sign for him.
Wow. So it's considered dangerous behaviour to walk and look at a screen at the same time?
Yes, I think so. We see people today who are colliding into each other and walking into trees – things that can cause damage for life. But aside from the physical consequences, it's not very sexy to be staring at a screen the whole time, and it shows a lack of respect for other people. We've become stimulant addicts in many ways, which can cause psychological as well as physical side effects. Today, a lot of people are great at multi-tasking. But research shows that, due to this multi-tasking, people are developing learning difficulties. It gets more difficult to take in information and focus on one thing for a long period of time. We see a lot of people showing ADHD-like symptoms.
Looking at your phone when you're hanging out with someone is pretty much the norm, though – at least in Sweden.
Yes. We are addicted to external information coming our way, so we don't know how to just spend time with ourselves – to enjoy our meals and allow ourselves to be bored. A mobile phone has power and control over our lives. A phone can be psychoactive; it can change your emotions and temper. You can go from being bored or feeling low to suddenly feeling a lot better, just from reading the news or using social media. It gives you the stimulant you need.
It sounds like the abuse you're talking about is a social addiction, rather than the internet itself.
It's both of them. I'd rather say stimulant addiction, but there are different categories. Some people are primarily stuck to one specific social media site, such as Facebook. There are 12-step programmes available for compulsive Facebook users. But the smartphone has power, control, everything.
Do you think people in Western societies are afraid of loneliness?
I think that a lot of people have difficulties being alone because they suffer from bad habits. But not everyone suffers from this. You can't look at society and say, "Oh my, everyone is looking at their phones." Some people want to do that and don't have a problem with it. And that's all fine and dandy. However, those who seek help with us are those who suffer and see the side effects from it all. Compulsive behaviours develop, and we offer treatments to break that state of mind. Some of the symptoms we've seen are sleeping difficulties, depression, feeling generally low and having difficulty concentrating and memorising things. The brain never gets time to rest when we're connected in this way. We need more time for ourselves.
Those sound like typical stress symptoms.
Would you say that smartphones and the internet cause stress?
It's the multi-tasking. We're super efficient, doing everything at once. This produces cortisol and adrenaline in your body. These are stress hormones, so the brain gets overstrained. Scientists have seen that the front part of the brain collapses due to multi-tasking. This part of the brain is also responsible for motivation, so we meet a lot of kids – and adults – who get a short-term kick out of taking in huge amounts of information, but they're unable to think in the long-term.
When did you figure out that it was about time to set up an internet ER?
We've had a video games ER for two years. We've been helping families with kids who play too much, for instance, or who are in front of the computer all the time. It soon became obvious to us that it's not only about video games. That's just one thing. A lot of people are addicted to the internet or mobile phones – it's generally people who feel the need to always be connected and online. So, as a natural part of the expansion of our business, we set up the internet ER. We're also collaborating with treatment centres in the US. We've seen what kind of treatments they're doing over there, and tried them out here.
How do you treat this kind of addiction?
We have the "mobile detox programme", for instance. Another program is the "stimulant fast" and the "white month". These are different programmes worked out for you to find a balance. These are like any other programmes when it comes to abuse and addiction. But we're not looking for complete abstinence. I mean, if you're abusing food, you still have to eat food. It's about finding the right approach so that you can create a good balance and allow your brain to rest and learn how to focus on one thing at a time.
What kind of people come to you for help?
It's a wide range of people. But it's mostly girls calling us. They suffer from internet abuse and mobile phone abuse.
Girls are more into social media. Boys are, too, of course, but girls seem to be communicating online in a different way. We now have Instagram and selfies, etc. That could be one reason.
Why are you guys the only ones offering this service?
That's a good question. The reason is that these are issues that haven't been addressed in the Social Services Act. It's not brought up on a political level and you can't get help with your addiction via social services. No one is highlighting these problems. So it’s about time that we make sure we research this here in the same way they're doing it in the US. There's some research on this, but we need more and it needs to be taken more seriously than it currently is – I mean, we get ten to 15 phone calls a day.
Finally, what do you tell people who feel that they have an internet addiction?
One thing you can do is to set some rules and limits for when you should and when you shouldn’t use your phone – say you won't check your phone between 9PM and 7AM on weekdays, for example. Another thing you can do is to make sure you don’t have your phone in your bedroom. A lot of people use their phones as an alarm in the morning, but then there's a risk that they'll check emails and social media. So get a proper alarm clock with batteries instead!
Cool – good tip. Thanks, Patrik!
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