I was on the bus home to Venice, CA in February via Culver City and passed the Cyber Addiction Recovery Center. It was too good to be true. So I visited Chris Mullligan, its chief therapist, for The Guardian’s Tech Weekly.

Here’s the transcript from that week’s Email from America:

Los Angeles, California is a land of “issues”: everybody’s got a support group, a therapist, a yogi or a coach of one description or another. It’s actually rather contradictory; you’d think, with the views, the beach and the sunshine that their problems would melt away. BUt here in the land of celebrity, everyone’s letting their problems all hang out.

Unsurprisingly in this free market, there’s a thriving “solution” industry here to help, to confirm, through the exchange of cash for “expertise” that it’s not you, it was you in a past life, or your parents. Or your parents in a past life. Or your life is afflicted by a curse. Or carbs. Or karma. Or cooked food. Or, as I saw riding past on the Number 1 the other day, perhaps the thing that’s most affecting your life is your pash for the web.

The Cyber Addiction Recovery Centre offers the therapeutic services of social worker Chris Mulligan, a clinician who’s been helping people professionally for more than 15 years. His enormous sign on Washington Blvd in Culver City, right next to the soundstages of Sony Pictures Entertainment, describes that he will help with internet and videogame addiction in children, teens and adults. Unsurprisingly, it attracts the interest of parents eager to extract their kids’ unhealthy fixation with their tablets, smartphones, laptops and games consoles. The website, which, ironically, I checked on my smartphone while I was still on the bus, also had details of group therapy sessions for in-person support. Online support wasn’t really offered.

My interest was piqued for two reasons: first, although over the years I’ve been writing about technology I’ve heard of net “addiction” clinics in China and Korea, one in the Netherlands and a few scattered across the USA, I’ve never actually seen one. And here was one practically on my doorstep.

Second, I’ve recently begun to question my relationship with my devices. Twitter and email have snuck into my good night and good morning routines. There is an almost physical reaction – panic, mostly – when I can’t access data on my phone, or when wifi goes down. I can’t concentrate on writing unless I turn on SelfControl, a piece of software I downloaded from the web when I was writing my last book that blacklists websites and services I decide are too tempting, like Twitter and email. If it’s not on, I will “switch task” like like a loon. And if it is, I have to turn my phone off and put it in another room or I’ll find a way around the blockade to feed my need for .. what? I don’t even know.

But is this kind of behaviour the symptoms of an addiction? Intellectually, my attitude to the phenomenon tends towards the skeptical end of the spectrum; not a single psychiatry diagnostic manual in the world includes cyber-addiction as an actual mental health problem, even though headlines, TV ads and polemicists would have you believe that the fat pipes of the internet are the crack pipes for society.

But the science does show that some people do develop problematic use, in the same way some people over-eat, overexercise and yes, over-read.

So I decided to get an expert opinion. I made a phone call and booked myself in for a cyber-addiction assessment at the Cyber-Addiction Recovery Center.

The sliding scale rate for a ninety-minute individual session with the charmingly Facebook Friend-able Chris Mulligan ranges from $90-$120. I was welcomed into a large, screenless room where the furniture arrangement implied group and individual therapy zones, and made my way to a couch on the far side. My voice echoed around the bare white, windowless walls. Chris had only moved to this location a few weeks before and was still decorating but it gave the atmosphere a clinical palor, which, given the reason I was ostensibly there, seemed appropriate. We took the positions, me on the couch, and he on a chair across. Self-published workbooks with titles like The Video Game Addiction Workbook and Parenting Cyberspace sat on the mid-century modern coffee table next to a jaunty vase of flowers. I took a deep breath. I was suddenly very nervous.

“I’ve, um, come to find out if I’m addicted to the internet,” I said.

He smiled.

I must have looked terrified, beseeching and he sat back in his chair. He began,

“Well, my first question is usually, what do you do for a living.”

I told him I was a journalist and technology researcher, and then, unasked, flooded the room with my worries about concentration, my concerns about checking my phone at inappropriate and difficult times, my fears about over-sharing on social networks. I apologetically confessed to using software to control my use and described the steps I’ve taken to get around it. By the end of the.. must have been.. ten minute confession, I felt utterly shamed. I tried to explain that I had to use technology, and I had to be connected all the time because of the nature of my work, but my protests felt pathetic, like a condemned woman appealing for clemency from a benign ruler. I awaited his conclusion. I could almost hear the men in the white coats outside the door.

He smiled again. He did that little spinning thing with the pen he had in his hand, the one some people can do on the backs of their thumbs.

“My next question,” he said quietly, slowly, stilling his pen, “is do you feel it’s getting in the way of your life?”

This gave me pause.

I wasn’t skipping out on meals, social activities, meetings or relationships to go online. I wasn’t stealing to access the web. More than anything else, I was concerned with my levels of productivity and the abusive way I dealt with deadlines. I just knew that I was wasting my time click-switching from one tab to another, getting lost down unnecessary rabbit holes, spending hours writing and researching blogposts about things no one cared about instead of doing the writing I was meant to be doing.

But as a procrastinator I had always meant to get around to being disappointed with my time management. The web was just helping me fritter away the hours doing things that were so-called “useful” instead of what actually needed to be done.

I still, generally, hit my deadlines. I hadn’t been fired (yet) for dropping the ball.

I had to admit to him that I wasn’t.

“Do you play games?”

Surprised by the question, I said I’d not picked up a game since 2009 except for a radio documentary I’d made last year.

He made a note on his piece of paper.

“Do you look at online porn?”

“No,” I said. “Not really.”

He took off his glasses and looked at me. He made another mark with his pen. He then put the pen down.

And then we had a conversation.

The people he treats for problematic behaviour play games, look at porn, gamble, blog or manipulate social media to the exclusion of everything else. They have lost relationships. They are losing touch with reality, he says. Their behaviour – and what they
are doing or looking at escalates. It becomes become more dangerous. They take risks.

What I suffer from is easy to deal with. I can get a machine that can only be connected to the internet with an ethernet cable, or I can use Self Control or similar services that are human-controlled that remotely switch off access to certain sites. If I’m really worried that I’m losing control, make a mark on a piece of paper every time I check Twitter or my email, switch tabs or check my phone and do this for ten days. Then reassess.

But he’s not worried about me because I don’t play games and I don’t look at porn. I don’t gamble.These are the biggest red flags, he explained. Games and gambling services are designed to compel, to keep people playing. Porn doesn’t allow people to look away.

Even these statements are contentious, though. Last week, the Academy of Social Sciences gave Dr Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University an award for his work in this field. Over the years, Mark has been forced by many computer game developers and journalists, to play the role the pantomime baddie, making claims against their specialist subjects and puncturing their inflated Geek Egos with some actual science. They don’t like his results, which generally show that people who play online games can compulsively and problematically replace offline relationships in favour of online action.

But what makes a mental illness officially exist is inclusion in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the fifth edition of the DSM is being released later this year, and cyber addiction is being debated for inclusion. But although those debates were behind closed doors, it’s likely that the board won’t add cyber addiction as a separate mental illness. Instead, it will be listed as a symptom of something more general, like depression, in the same manner as over-eating, over-exercising or, yes, over-reading.

The thing that ties people who think cyber-addiction as real and the geeks who say it doesn’t exist is the assumption that cyber-addiction is a separate illness, that somehow the technology makes it a special case. But people who today might have a problematic relationship with their phone might, in another era, have expressed their symptoms by obsessive trainspotting, stamp collecting, plastic surgery or being really into butterflies. The internet is a macguffin. Like so many other things levied against the network, the overt behaviour is just a symptom for something more endemic.

My visit to the Cyber Addiction Recovery Center left me more mindful of the ways technology gets in the way of my work life, and more hungry to reassert control over my relationship with it. So what if I don’t respond to an email within 20 minutes of its arrival? So what if things happen on Twitter and I’m not there to see it? I’ve even started a piggy bank fund for a work machine that doesn’t have wifi so I can switch off the compulsion to fall down a rabbit hole of – quote – research, when I already have the information in my head.

The underlying mantra of this 469 square mile megopolis is, “It’s not “You are broken. We can make you better.” Or, as in-flight shopping catalog SkyMall would have you believe, “Here is the solution to the thing in your life you didn’t realise was a problem!”

The Cyber Addiction Recovery Center is exploiting a symptom of a more modern series of problems. In this debate, the real issue isn’t about the internet; it’s about why people are choosing to escape there, rather than feeling comfortable enough in their offline skin to live in it.

Listen to the audio on Tech Weekly from The Guardian.