Children suffering from an internet disorder have a place to get help

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There's a battle being waged between many kids and their cell phones.

Parents wonder if the hours their child spends online is just a fun hobby or the start of something experts call an internet disorder.

For most children, gaming doesn't disrupt their lives, but that wasn't the case for Danny Reagan.

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Danny said he doesn't quite remember how it started but his digital drug of choice was YouTube. He couldn't stop watching others play video games and he remembers playing six or seven hours a day.

For his parents, Laurie and Andy Reagan, they assumed it was just to pass the time.

Then came the warning signs.

His grades dropped; he no longer had time to play basketball or baseball; when the family wanted to go out, he demanded to stay home instead.

His parents came up with a plan. They started to take their son's electronics away: his phone, his gaming consoles. They used rewards and consequences to try to reduce the amount of time he was spending online.

"When I tried to limit myself, it didn't work," Danny said.

Looking back, his parents say their son was crying for help.

Danny, it turns out, was dealing with more than a fascination with online games. Years earlier, he was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and the internet became his way of escape.

"I just wanted to withdraw and go into my own world," Danny said.

A world he says began to pit him versus his family.

"They had kicked me out of the house," he said.

His father described his son's internet addiction this way: "If you want to compare it to drugs, here's a bag of crack in my pocket — that's the cell phone."

Getting help

Desperate for answers, the family turned to the Lindner Center of HOPE near Cincinnati.

It runs the Reboot Program, a 28-day in-patient facility for children ages 11 through 18 struggling with internet addiction.

Clinical Director of Addiction Services Dr. Chris Tuell says since 2011, they've seen a 55 percent increase of mental health issues in 12 to 17-year-olds. A spike that also happens at the same time when social media started.

Dr. Tuell says that like gambling or alcoholism, someone diagnosed with internet disorder experiences the same changes in the brain. "It's really about the brains' reward system getting hijacked and how the brain believes this is a necessary behavior."

He says there's a common thread among children who can't control their time online: "Almost up to 83 percent of folks that have an addiction or substance use problem also have a mental health co-current disorder."

Which explains, Dr. Tuell says, why Danny's desire to play video games nearly destroyed his own life: "If I have anxiety or depression, I don't want to talk about that stuff, so I find whatever I can to suppress that."

Neither the World Health Organization nor the American Psychiatric Association recognizes internet addiction as a disorder. The WHO recognized "Gaming Disorder" based on research in China, South Korea and Taiwan, where doctors have called it a public health crisis.

Some online games and console companies have advised gamers against playing to excess. YouTube created a time-monitoring tool to nudge viewers to take breaks from their screens.

Today, Danny is out of treatment and living at home.

His parents said their son remains a work in progress and wants parents to know sending your child to the Lindner Center of HOPE doesn't mean they cured.

"If you think they're going to fix your kid? They're not going to fix your kid. They're going to teach your child how to live with the mental health issues they do have," Laurie said.

Treatment isn't cheap, it can cost $16,000 and it's not covered by insurance.

For the Reagans, they say any amount of money to save their child's life was worth it.

"Please don't end up like us — where your child comes to you in the middle of the night and says to you, ‘I want to hurt myself,’ that isn't because of electronics. A video game isn't telling him that; his heart is telling him that; his spirit is telling him that. Something is broken, and if you don't fix that, no amount of protection from games or his phone or YouTube is going to do that,” Laurie said.

As for Danny, he says now understands the triggers that allowed his computer to control his life, and he has some advice for kids struggling with an internet disorder: "If you're not able to turn it off, you need to have someone else turn it off for you.”