Constantine, Algeria – “When talking about addiction, people usually think about tobacco, drugs or alcohol dependency,” said Dr Hakima Boualem, head of the medical staff of the addiction treatment centre of Bachir Mentouri clinic in Constantine.
“But, for some, the fight is with internet – especially the ‘magic blue’ of Facebook.”
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Last May, addiction specialists and psychologists at the Bachir Mentouri clinic, which is 450km to the east of the capital Algiers, rolled out a rehab programme designed for compulsive users of technology, particularly social networks.This is the first clinic in Algeria – and in Africa – aiming to cure Internet fanatics.
Algeria has joined a growing list of countries to open rehab centres helping those who suffer from a web obsession. In South Korea, home of the world’s most connected population, digital detox camps have already treated thousands of children. According to South Korea’s Ministry of Family, 14 percent of South Korean teenagers are addicted to the internet.
Unlike South Korea, Algeria has been much slower to embrace the internet, launching long-awaited 3G service only about three years ago. Algeria’s internet penetration rate remains relatively low, standing at 32.8 percent in a country of 40 million people, according to this year’s State of Broadband Report.
Today, the North African country counts more than nine million Facebook users, according to Algerian digital marketing analysts. But this increasing use of the internet has come at a price.
“Algeria is experiencing what developing countries have been facing for a few years: the flip side of the internet,” Dr Raouf Bougouffa, director of the Bachir Mentouri clinic’s rehab department, told Al Jazeera. “An increasing number of internet users are losing control.”
Though there is not yet a formal definition of what an internet-related addiction entails, health experts at the clinic agree that internet overuse has emerged as a national issue.
They share many symptoms with hardcore drug addicts. When not able to go online, web fanatics feel fidgety and can show aggressiveness or anxiety.
“Their addiction is real and sometimes troubling,” siad Sihem Hemadna, a psychologist at the Constantine rehab centre.
When Al Jazeera met her, she was ending a psychotherapy session with a 20-something man. He refused to be interviewed. “Don’t bother to try to reach him, he won’t talk. Addiction remains a bright-line taboo in Algeria,” Hemadna told Al Jazeera.
Since May, she has met about 100 patients who say they can spend the entire day online, from sunrise till sunset, getting into arguments on forums and social media – sometimes without taking a break to eat or even use the bathroom.
As a consequence, their physical health declines. “Most of them suffer from back pain, red eyes and headaches,” Hemadna explained. “Actually, they share many symptoms with hardcore drug addicts. When not able to go online, web fanatics feel fidgety and can show aggressiveness or anxiety.”
The patients at the clinic are as young as 15 and as old as 40. “It could be anyone. Like any addiction, web obsession affects all of us, mostly teenagers and young adults,” Boualem said.
“One teenager, who went into the clinic because of his drug abuse, found out about web obsession and asked for help, explaining that his family could not take their eyes off the screen, including his parents. They were no longer talking to each other, nor having dinner together. He said he could not stand this family’s toxic life. His parents and three brothers agreed to enrol in our internet rehab programme four months ago,” Dr Hemadna said.
Posters warning against the danger of internet overuse have are on display everywhere in the rehab centre to alert visitors about this new ailment. The reception hall also features an anti-internet addiction painting, designed by a local artist who was treated at the clinic.
“Nobody has spontaneously visited us to be cured of internet dependency, only because no one knows about digital addiction. It is a new thing in Algeria. That is why we distributed those images. Awareness campaigns should also be set,” said Hemadna.
“Our patients come to us firstly because they want to overcome a drug addiction. But the more we talk with them, the more we notice that they suffer from another addiction: Web obsession,” she added.
Heavy use of the internet is not necessarily pathological, experts say. “People can spend hours each day in front of a screen without being addicted. The critical distinction between an addiction and just a bad habit is that addiction implies a pattern of use that you cannot stop.”
For some users, going online is as important in their life as breathing, eating or sleeping. We are literally talking about people who put their life at risk,” Djamel Berkat, an addiction specialist at Bachir Mentouri clinic, told Al Jazeera.
Last June, when the Algerian government decided to block social networks nationwide for a week in an attempt to stop people cheating on high school exams, some web addicts reached a crisis point. “We received dozens of patients who were very nervous because of the internet shutdown during the baccalaureate exams. Some said that they could not handle it, comparing the internet to oxygen,” Hemadna recalled.
The internet rehab programme is entirely paid for by the Algerian government.
“At Bachir Mentouri, we consider internet addiction the same as other types of addiction,” said Boualem.”The cure starts with a full psychological evaluation. During the first session, we get to know the patient, while during the second meeting, we try to find the real reasons of their addiction.
“Web obsession, like any other addiction, is only the tip of an iceberg. We often find underlying mental or psychological issues,” Boualem added.
The treatment package includes individual and group therapy, and relaxation and meditation training. “Physical exercises and music therapy help to wean them off their dependency,” said Berkat, showing a room equipped with two treadmills and yoga balls.
But going cold turkey is not easy in a country where there are few distractions but millions of unemployed young people. Nearly a quarter of the population under the age of 24 has no job, according to the National Office of Statistics.
“Many Algerians spend whole nights at cyber cafes to connect on social networks because they do not have many places to hang out. The situation is worst outside Algiers,” Berkat explains. “The internet offers them what they cannot find anywhere else in Algeria: A euphoric escape from reality. But they end up sucked into a digital world.”
Sitting next to him, Boualem pointed out that parents may share some responsibility. “They often encourage their children to use technology, without being aware of the harm it could do to them.”
“One mother, who accompanied her son to the clinic and had no clue about internet addiction, said that she would rather keep her children at home, either connecting or gaming, than allow them to participate in outdoor activities because she thinks that it is much safer,” Boualem said.
It is too early to say whether the Bachir Mentouri treatment clinic can cure internet addicts. More studies needs to be done, experts say. “We are flying blind because we have done little research about this new ailment,” Berkat said.
Similarly, Bougouffa asserted: “We have seen the good and the bad side of the internet. It is now time to launch a national debate about internet use in Algeria.”