by Johnny Tock MS LMHC
Advancements in technology are a good thing, right? It makes our life easier, helps us stay connected to our friends and family, and keeps us entertained. At what point are boundaries crossed and tech use becomes a problem? Is this just a phase that our children will eventually grow out of? Can’t I just take away the Xbox?
One of my favorite sayings is “Nothing is a problem until it’s a problem”. Games are fun, iphones are great, and movies are enjoyable. What we are seeing in our younger population is that not only has tech use become a problem…it has become a big problem. Currently we are seeing parents whose children are isolating from others, decreasing their engagement in activities, lacking focus and motivation, losing sight of their personal hygiene, and struggling to live up to their potential. These students aren’t being defiant to teachers or getting addicted to substances. Their “addiction” is to technology and their defiance is usually reserved for parents when attempts are made to take that technology away. This is an emerging, growing struggle and one that requires a different type of intervention.
Adolescence is an important stage of life where much of our identity is created. Who am I and what is my place in the world? This is the stage where we learn how to meet our need for connection, fun, purpose, belonging, and self-worth among other things. What happens when these basic needs are met through gaming, social media, or tech use? What you get are teenagers who have lost the ability or confidence to connect with people, manage their anxiety and depression in constructive positive ways, and have replaced the motivation and focus connected to school or house chores with a desire to “level up”.
At ReSTART, we have seen that there needs to not only be the absence of technology in treatment, but there needs to be education and therapeutic work done around its use in conjunction with treating the symptoms of anxiety or depression. We feel strongly that when you only focus on one part of the puzzle, you miss out on all the other pieces. For example, if someone struggles with meth addiction, treating the client’s anxiety or depression without tackling the client’s addiction to the substance will most likely set them up for relapse.
Comparing technology “addiction” to substance addiction can be a problematic argument and one that is difficult to comprehend. A notification from your phone, or reaching the next level in your game does release dopamine, in a similar way that substances do, and the need to increase use in order to achieve that comparable level of dopamine is also a familiar theme in the substance addiction cycle. A major difference to keep in mind is that students struggling with their dependence on technology see everyone using tech all around them. Not only are parents, friends, teachers, etc. constantly using this technology, the societal reliance on technology is increasing every day. The other major difference is that sobriety from technology is not only impossible, but also unhealthy. People need to be able to use technology for jobs, for school, for connection.
So what is the answer?
At ReSTART we feel it is necessary to get our students reengaged in life. Get them outside. Get them eating healthy, exercising, adopting healthy sleep patterns, and learning about themselves. Help them find healthy coping strategies and positive ways to meet their basic needs so they can grow into responsible, caring, and connected individuals. Focus on sustainable use and not elimination. Educating our teens and young adults on how to function in a world that will constantly require them to use technology while also protecting the things that are most important to them like relationships, school, or work. These are not easy tasks, but the first step is awareness.
As the community of parents who feel the need to hide their internet router grows so does the awareness around this growing struggle. Adam Alter just wrote an amazing book titled “Irresistible” which does a fantastic job of describing this phenomenon and there is a documentary titled “Screenagers” that is being shown across the country. The Internet Gaming Treatment Alliance is currently being formed. There are more and more news articles, “60 Minute” segments, and NPR shows that seem to pop up daily describing this destructive change in our society. This growing awareness needs to accompany a growing call to action.