Helping Troubled Teens Recover from Technology Addiction

There are numerous personal accounts of teens who are addicted to technology. However, the DSM-5, the manual which psychologists use to diagnose mental illness, does not recognize technology addiction. The World Health Organization (WHO) recognized online Gaming Disorder only this year. The lack of recognition of technology addiction is a problem for parents seeking help for their teens. While some mental health professionals dispute the validity of technology addiction, other mental health professionals are helping to make technology more addictive. Online games and apps are often addictive by design so that users will spend as much time as possible online.  

Oxbow Academy helps troubled teens with a sexual addiction to reclaim their lives. In addition to teaching young men about healthy relationships, the young men also learn about the healthy use of technology. The reintroduction of technology is a complex, highly individualized process.

Beginning with a Technology Detox

When young men first enter the program, they must give up access to technology.

“Boys are not allowed to come in with any phones, iPads, or computer access,” said Admissions Director and therapist, Tiffany Silva. “The only access that they have is an iPod Shuffle that they can earn the privilege to use, that does not have access to the internet so that they can listen to music.”

The houses where the young men live have computers, but the computers do not have access to the internet. Students use the house computers to complete therapeutic homework assignments. Staff members carefully monitor the school computers, which do have internet access. Staff members sit next to students while they use the computer. In addition, keystrokes are recorded. There are also firewalls in place to prevent students from accessing inappropriate content.

Holding Boundaries

For technology-addicted troubled teens, when they lose their access to technology, then their addiction only becomes more obvious. The young men show symptoms similar to detox, including withdrawal.

“The outlet that they had, whether it be gaming or pornography or social media, is now taken away. They no longer have that outlet to manage uncomfortable feelings such as pain, anxiety and depression, or whatever else they are experiencing,” said Tiffany. This often causes young men to act out.

Many young men will experience something called an extinction outburst. During an extinction outburst, a young man’s bad behavior will escalate. These young men do everything possible to gain access to what they want. Therapists warn parents that their son’s behavior might become worse before it gets better.

During this time, therapists, staff members, and parent must firmly keep boundaries in place. If the adults work together to maintain strong boundaries, then the teen’s behavior will gradually improve.

Learning Responsibility

When the young men progress to the point when they have earned visits to go home to their family, their therapists begin reintroducing them to technology. Therapists also talk to parents about ways that parents can use to encourage accountability in the ways that their son uses technology.

“It’s not like alcoholism where you can never go into a bar again, this is more complicated,” said Tiffany. With issues like sex addiction or technology addiction, total abstinence is not a realistic solution. Instead, young men learn the importance of consent. They learn the ways that healthy relationships are different from relationships that they may have seen in online pornography or social media.

Therapists and parents also give parents guidance on tools that they can use to help their son to be accountable. These tools may include apps that give parents a degree of control in monitoring their son’s online activities.

“If your kid is spending a lot of time on a certain app, educate yourself about it,” Tiffany suggested. “What is it? Why do kids like it? What are they doing?”

By becoming informed about what their teens are doing online, then they can make informed decisions. It is important that teens know what uses for technology are or are not acceptable. Also, parents can show teens that access to technology is a privilege that teens must earn.

“Parents need to put boundaries [around technology] and have conversations with their kids about it,” suggested Tiffany. “It may be a battle at first, but it is a battle worth fighting.”