By Elizabeth Fisher
Special to the CS&T

LEVITTOWN – In the stark mountains of “Afghanistan” a platoon of special ops soldiers is ambushed by Taliban fighters. The “good guys” take cover and fire back. Casualties mount on both sides. Intense combat goes on for hours before a winner is declared.

The battleground doesn’t have to be Afghanistan. Fighters can choose Vietnam or Europe during World War II. The “war” is movable because “Call of Duty” is a video game available for various gaming systems, and a wireless hookup enables up to 12 players to communicate.

“Call of Duty,” a video game franchise that originated in 2003, recently released “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” and it has been flying off store shelves as fast as it can be stocked. And the games are drawing more and more kids into a new phenomenon: Internet addiction, said Dr. Kimberly Young, a renowned expert on Internet addiction and director of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery. {{more}}

Addiction comes easily to teenagers because the availability of the Internet and cell phone technology has all but replaced “hanging out” with friends. The world of technology is faceless, yet it has hijacked the young whose social skills are still undeveloped.

“The false sense of confidence and self esteem they find as ‘characters’ in war games make teens feel invincible. Unfortunately, those attributes do not transfer to real life. Games like ‘Black Ops’ can take seven or eight hours and that means that rooms don’t get cleaned, homework is neglected and grades fall,” said Young, who teaches at St. Bonaventure University in western New York, and who authored several books, including “Breaking Free of the Web: Catholics and the Internet.”

A teenager who calls himself “Bobby” – he doesn’t want his real name used – is one of the lucky ones. Two years ago, at age 13, he admitted to his mother that he was addicted to the games he played relentlessly on the Internet and on the game system he got that year for Christmas.

Bobby, who lives in Levittown and is a student of the Pennsbury School District, spent the Christmas holidays in front of his Play Station 3. His mother said she chalked up the hours Bobby disappeared to the novelty of owning his own computer and his own Play Station. But after returning to school, Bobby was still “vegetating,” his mother said.

Bobby’s marks had plummeted from As to Cs in three subjects. By that time, he’d become morose around the family. He declined to spend time with his family, even when they went out to dinner. Instead, he’d ask his mother to bring him something to eat. The $60 games and the Internet were taking their toll, his mother said.

A confrontation with his family was inevitable.

“I told my mom that I was hooked on the games. I never meant to be. I’d sit down thinking I’d play for an hour, but then I just couldn’t stop. Even when mom took the games and my computer away, I felt lost. For a couple of weeks, I couldn’t think about anything else,” Bobby said.

Bobby still flirts with the Internet and the games, but he keeps busy with sports and other school activities. He can play a game for a while but when his mother tells him time’s up, he signs off.

Young said online games are the “number one concern” in the United States because they can lead to or be the result of depression. Many other countries, including Germany and China, are wrestling with Internet addiction among their youth. Giving a 10- or 11-year-old child a BlackBerry device – a move that “seems normal at the time,” Young said – can set the stage for addiction.

In twist of irony, the fallout from longtime Internet addiction generally doesn’t manifest itself until college years, when young people are no longer under the watchful eyes of parents. They pay a heavy price. Sometimes a teen loses a scholarship, or flunks out of college.

“That’s when the parents contact us seeking treatment,” Young said. “It takes something big before realization sets in that there’s a problem.”

Internet addiction is so new and research so sparse that there are no reliable statistics, but Young believes that the problem is more pervasive than most people believe.

Elizabeth Fisher is a freelance journalist and member of St. Mark Parish in Bristol.