Ben Alexander says he's an addict.
The soft-spoken 19-year-old says that around the time he went off to college, he became involved in an online game called "World of Warcraft."
"It fairly quickly got out of hand to where I was missing classes and spending entire days just playing, and not doing anything else," Alexander says.
About to flunk out, Alexander asked his folks for help. His family is now spending $300 a day to keep Alexander away from the Internet. He is the first client at a startup detox program called reSTART, which operates out of a large country home outside Seattle. The house belongs to program co-founder Cosette Dawna Rae, who runs a combination counseling/massage therapy business on the same site. It's a place with goats, doves and chickens.
Alexander helped build a new chicken coop, something he'd never done before. He says outdoor activities suppress his urge to go online. Alexander also gets counseling from Hilarie Cash, a psychologist from suburban Seattle who co-founded the program. Cash has made a career treating what she calls "Internet and technology addiction."
"We know that people tend to get hooked by things that are rewarding, but unpredictably so," she says. "The Internet is just built around that principle."
The Internet can be as habit-forming, Cash says, as alcohol and gambling.
"If you do it compulsively, and despite the negative consequences, then we'd say that's an addiction," she says.
It's a broad definition of addiction — too broad for some people.
"It becomes this catch-all label for anything that people find themselves spending a lot of time doing and find it very enjoyable to do so," says psychologist John Grohol, founder of the mental health Web site PsychCentral.com. "That's not really what an addiction is, traditionally."
Grohol is more inclined to see excessive Internet use as a symptom, not a disease; a symptom of, say, depression.
At reSTART, however, Cash says recognition of Internet addiction will grow, and she is busy recruiting more clients. She has lost track of how many media calls she has had or how many reporters have interviewed the program's young first patient.
Alexander doesn't seem to mind; it's something else to fill the hours, now that he's not online.