HAMBURG - Jan Heusinger’s day was always the same: wake up, shower, have breakfast – and then spend the rest of his hours playing computer games. Four years ago, when he was 14, he'd bought World of Warcraft, an online role-playing game. By 2011, he'd stopped attending school to spend his days as an Orc warrior.
He’d had problems with youth welfare authorities; his parents were divorced; and he was bullied in school because he was overweight. Gradually, computer games took over his life. Heusinger is computer-addicted.
The 18-year-old is by no means alone. Just in his native Germany, 1.7% of all 15-year-olds are addicted to video games, spending a minimum of four and a half hours daily in front of their screen. A further 2.8% are considered at risk. The problem is far more prevalent among boys than girls.
Jan Heusinger lives with his mother. For years, she tried in vain to get him to accept therapy for his addiction. However, early this year Heusinger himself began to realize that he had to do something. Looking back, he says, "something just went click” and he contacted a psychologist who referred him to the Schön Klinik in Bad Bramstedt near Hamburg.
The idea was to get Heusinger out of the house, away from his usual surroundings. The Schön clinic is one of the few in Germany that treat computer-addicted patients as in-patients. Psychologist Tim Aalderink started the addiction program there a year ago. He says the fun of playing the games is not the only reason for computer addiction.
"Addicts have problems with their family, job or partner,” he says, and are afraid to deal with them in the real world, so they hide in a virtual one.
In view of this, patients undergoing therapy are asked to talk about their social problems. Heusinger underwent group therapy with six other computer addicts, all of whom had problems similar to his. "We identified with each other," he says. Together they went wall climbing and car racing. The activities were geared to giving them positive feelings and a real-life adrenaline kick.
Addiction or sign of depression?
Computer addiction has not yet been recognized as an official illness. But Heusinger was in luck: his health insurance company paid the full amount of his treatment. Aalderink says there is substantial disagreement among experts about where to situate the problem. Some agree it's an addiction, similar to alcoholism. But others say it is a behavioral problem, symptomatic of depression. Either way, those suffering from the condition lose control over the amount of time they spend on the computer.
Addicts get edgy when no computer is at hand, during a vacation for example. And they develop progressively higher tolerance levels, so they have to spend more and more time in front of the screen. Soon enough, physical problems manifest, whether these be neglected bodily hygiene, or forgetting to eat or sleep.
Rudolf Kammerl, an education expert at the University of Hamburg, says the situation is like the proverbial chicken and egg -- what comes first? Problems with everyday life or flight into the virtual world? "During puberty, young people should be building a sense of control over their own lives,” Kammerl says. So it is particularly harmful when during such a crucial phase they lose themselves in a computer world.
Christian Brehm of the German Trade Association of Interactive Entertainment Software (BIU) says he doesn’t think it’s unusual if computer games take on a greater degree of importance during specific life phases. "But the problem is when they supplant social life and other interests," he says.
Brehm says the industry recognizes the problem, and is considering developing games that shut down automatically after a certain period of time has elapsed.
Psychologist Aalderink advises young people who spend too much time playing computer games to seek out a psychologist. Extreme cases -- mostly young men -- end up in his clinic. There are on average 10 in-patients and they mostly stay for eight weeks. Computer addiction can take different forms, Aalderink says. Not all addicts play games: some patients surf the Internet compulsively, while others gamble online. The latter problem, unlike so-called pathological computer use, is a recognized addiction.
The final goal of the therapy is for patients to be able to use their computer at work and at home in an non-compulsive way, says Aalderink. After his therapy, Heusinger is now at that point. When he got back from the clinic, he uninstalled World of Warcraft. He has vowed not to play the game again. Next month he’s going to move into a residential unit at a youth center where he hopes to reestablish balance in his daily routine and then go back to school.
He says his professional goal is to work at a manual job -- “something that does not involve the use of computers.”