TURIN - Marco* was dragged here by his parents. He is 17 and spends 16 hours a day glued to the computer. Two years of school down the drain and no friends. But he still doesn’t get it. “I’m fine,” he says.
He wakes up at two in the afternoon and goes to bed at six in the morning. He doesn’t like lights on in the house and wears sunglasses to the dinner table. As they drive through the gate of the Gruppo Abele (Abel’s Group) in Turin he stretches his arms and opens his eyes: “What’s going on?”
At first, it was nothing. His mom and dad were proud of Marco, who didn’t smoke or ever get drunk. There were no nights spent waiting for him to return home after a party. But when they tried to unplug the PC, Marco became aggressive. There were insults and punches: symptoms of full-blown withdrawal.
Father Luigi Ciotti, who founded the Gruppo Abele in 1966, has turned his attention to this new phenomenon after years treating heroin addicts, alcoholics and bankrupt gamblers. But today, the priest is waging a war on cyber-dependency. “It’s the most underestimated addiction,” he says. The most insidious. “Our society worries about these kids, but doesn’t do anything to help them. Instead, we should be helping them get their lives back.”
But how do you fight against an enemy that isn’t there? A virtual enemy, so sly that it infiltrates the objects we can’t do without: computers, smartphones and tablets. There is a fine line between use and abuse. A line between the network that connects you to the world but also isolates you behind a monitor, turning you into an “avatar.”
Marco says that his day is full and satisfying. He plays role-play games, downloads American TV series or creates videos that he uploads to YouTube. He never, ever feels alone because there’s always someone on the other end of the screen.
“Online, our children can live a parallel life, in which they cannot differentiate anymore between the real world and the virtual one,” explains Alberto Rossetti, a psychologist from Turin. “They become one with their avatar. They have sentimental encounters, conquer new worlds, all with real emotions and sensations.”
Bytes instead of flesh, smileys instead of glances. Even uploading their own films on the web “seems to be a new way to assert their identity and their right to be there. In other words: If I’m on the Internet, I exist,” offers Federico Tonioni, medical director of Psychiatry and Addiction in Rome’s Policlinico Hospital.
The same thing is happening with Jin*, a Chinese emigrant who moved to Turin. He’s only alive at night, connecting with his compatriots 8000 kilometers away: “They’re the only ones who get me.”
Therapy works and with it you can get away from dependence. The turning point comes with contact from reality. The staff at Gruppo Abele involves the youths with the organization of exhibitions in which technology becomes real, palpable. Big cells where they can play hide and seek. Washing machines that can be dismantled and turned into works of art. Video games programmed by baby geniuses.
For Franco* withdrawal to the computer has been gradual. For him, it was difficult to relate to his classmates because he felt inferior to them. Bullies were violent and some jokes did more damage than anything physical. At the Gruppo Abele he lets it all go, telling everything. Parents are essential to this process. “The key is to talk to your kids about what they do on the Internet and get interested in their world,” says Rossetti. When they ask for help, by then, mother and father are the only link that binds their child to reality.
Franco has gotten away from the screen but the pressure to fit back in with his peers “is huge.” The Internet is so captivating that it doesn’t leave any space for loneliness. “Behind the screen on Facebook, there’s always the illusion that someone is interacting with you,” he says.
With heroin, you can run away from the world but with the Internet you are looking for new relationships. Drugs alienate you but social networks brings real emotions. “You can get away from drugs,” reasons Mauro Maggi, a teacher, “but you can’t escape technology. We must come to terms with it because it will be an integral part of our daily lives, forever.” Learning to live with what brought you to addiction is a challenge. “It’s like a knife, you know? You can carve beautiful sculptures, or kill yourself.”
*Names have been changed.