Differentiating between Technology Abuse and Technology Addiction Treatment: A Guide for Parents

Cell phones, tablets, portable game consoles, laptops, and smartphones ensure that we never have to spend a moment fully immersed in reality.  There’s always a screen to escape into. As technology plays a significant role in most teen’s lives, your teen’s social media use may not stand out from their peers’ media consumption. Technology addiction treatment, however, goes beyond screen time and involves an unhealthy emotional attachment to the online world.

If you are worried that your teen spends too much time online, gets defensive about time away from screens, and has a hard time connecting with others face-to-face, they may be struggling with technology addiction. The abuse of technology by teens has been discussed as a major public health issue among teens for a while, but psychologists are only beginning to explore treatment for internet addiction beyond just limiting screen time. 

The guide is meant to be comprehensive, but as such, not every section will be applicable to everyone. Instead, we invite you to click on the links in the table of contents to jump to the sections that most interest you.

Table of Contents

1. What is Technology Addiction?

2. Why is My Teen Addicted to Screens?

    • Social Anxiety
    • Instant Gratification
    • Loss of Interest in Other Activities

3. When Does Your Teen Need Treatment for Technology Addiction?

4. How Does Wilderness Therapy at blueFire Help Teens Struggling with Technology Addiction?

What is Technology Addiction?

blueFire Wilderness’s definition of Technology Addiction has been adapted from the World Health Organization’s criteria for Video Game Addiction. This suggests that signs of technology addiction are similar to any other kind of behavioral addiction and should be treated as such, rather than as a problem with abusing the privilege of technology. Excessive technology use may be the first indicator that your teen may be struggling with technology addiction, but it is not necessarily the defining characteristic.

Signs of Technology Addiction

  • Impaired control over technology use (frequency, intensity, duration)
  • Increased priority given to technology over other interests
  • Continuation or escalation of technology use despite negative consequences
  • Increased interpersonal conflict or social withdrawal
  • Distress when access to technology is limited

Types of Technology Addiction

  • Video Game Addiction. One of the biggest concerns parents have about technology is the amount of time their teen spends playing video games, often instead of doing homework or going to bed at a reasonable time. For many teens, they may turn to video games to distract from feelings of loneliness or depression, but in the long run, these feelings may become more persistent as their life revolves around a game. Unlike other forms of isolating technology use, video games are more likely to be played with or around peers, which can make it seem like an appealing way to connect with others. However, they are likely to bond over a shared interest in a game than to get to know each other on a deeper level.  
  • Social Media Addiction. When people point out the potential harm associated with social media, like chasing validation through likes, comparing your lifestyle and accomplishments to others, and presenting your best self online, people may believe that is exactly why they find social media attractive. This can make it hard for people to accept the effect social media can have on self-esteem. 
  • Smartphone Addiction. The point of cell phones is to be able to use them wherever we go, but that doesn’t mean that teens should continue to use them wherever they go. The problem isn’t that teens can’t leave home without their phones, it is that using their phone while doing other things prevents them from being present in other activities or may lead to avoiding other activities overall. Between texting people during other conversations, filming every moment for Snapchat, or scrolling through social media during any “down time,” teens become anxious at the idea of time away from screens and struggle to separate their online from their offline lives. 

Consequences of Technology Addiction

Self-Esteem Issues. Cyberbullying, Photoshop expectations, and a Fear of Missing Out are just some of the ways that social media can affect self-esteem. Often, teens justify their self-worth by the number of likes or followers they have online, which fluctuates all the time. The pressure to please others and appear “perfect” online can contribute to an unstable sense of self.

Social Isolation and Loneliness. The more time teens spend online, scrolling through other people’s online lives, the more disconnected from others and  isolated they may feel. While they may have a couple people that they talk to regularly, they may feel more pressure to be more outgoing and extroverted than they are. 

Relationship Issues. The Internet may be a way for socially anxious teens to socialize with others, but it doesn’t teach them the same social skills that they would learn offline. The cycle of spending too much time on their phone and their parents’ attempts to limit their screen time can create a lot of tension in relationships. They may get into more arguments with their parents or become even more isolated from their online friends. Another problem that may arise if their goal is to be well-liked is that they look for quantity over quality in relationships and don’t have people that they feel comfortable reaching out to when it matters.

Is Every Teen Addicted to Screens?

Younger generations are considered “digital natives,” who have grown up relying on technology to meet their everyday needs. Teens report, on average, spending about twice as much time online as they do outside a week. Around 90% of high schoolers have some type of smartphone, with around 75% claiming that they check their phone at least once an hour. Compared to other behavioral addictions, there is more of a grey area with technology abuse as, at first glance, it may seem like every teen is addicted to screens. However, technology use affects all teens differently. Teens with existing mental health issues are more prone to technology addiction.

Why is My Teen Addicted to Screens?

The reasons that teens become glued to their personal devices is a better predictor of their vulnerability to technology addiction than how they spend their time online.  Some reasons contributing to technology abuse may include:

  • Social Anxiety. Teens who struggle with social anxiety or fitting in at school may find it easier to socialize online, where they are more in control of their interactions and have the opportunity to reinvent themselves. For some, social media can be a tool for them to connect with others and to stay up-to-date with their acquaintances without having to socialize in person. Even when hanging out with others in person, they may pull out their phone and scroll through social media for conversation topics. Often, the connections they form online are more superficial than offline relationships. As teens may feel more isolated and anxious without technology, they are more likely to become attached to screens.
  • Loss of Interest in Other Activities. One of the biggest red flags for technology addiction is losing interest in other activities, which is a defining feature of depression. When teens are struggling with depression, they often turn to technology to cope, or at least distract themselves from what they are feeling. Losing interest in certain classes or extracurriculars might motivate teens to spend more time online to fill a void, but it may also be a consequence of obsessing over notifications, continuing a video game, or going down any other Internet wormhole. 
  • Instant Gratification. The internet was designed to give people access to information at their fingertips--whether this is Googling the answer to something, reaching out to someone you’ve lost touch with, or providing a distraction from negative feelings. Technology is used as a quick fix for a variety of problems, which takes away from the value of problem-solving on one’s own. For many, technology becomes the answer when feeling sad, alone, angry, or even excited about something even though it doesn’t always help them process these emotions. 

When Does Your Teen Need Treatment for Technology Addiction?

Treatment for technology addiction is recommended for teens whose technology use has interfered with their daily functioning. Therapy for technology addiction focuses on the negative consequences, like self-esteem issues, relationship issues, and loneliness, more than discipline and self-control regarding screen time. The most effective form of treatment for teens involves family therapy in order to help families set boundaries, resolve conflict and learn how to better support their struggling teen.

Setting Limits Around Technology Use Doesn’t Always Work

While it’s common to wish your child spent less time online, limiting their internet use doesn’t necessarily teach them how to use technology more responsibly. It is becoming more common for parents to use digital grounding as a form of punishment either instead of or as well as traditional grounding. This refers to any attempt to restrict access to certain websites, social media apps, or technology altogether. Teens tend to underestimate how dependent they are on their smartphones and often spend a lot of time thinking about being online or how to sneak online when they are forced to hand over their devices, even during meals or before they go to bed. 

Ways to Monitor Your Teen’s “Technology Abuse”

  • Encourage them to self-monitor the time they spend online. While some parents turn to parental controls to restrict apps or deactivate service after a certain time of day, they are more likely to respect limits if they feel they have a voice in determining them. Many smartphones offer a breakdown of screen time that can help them visualize their dependence on technology and will warn them when they reach the limit they’ve set for themselves each day. 
  • Talk about how their online lives affect them. Acknowledge both pros and cons. Talk to them as much about entertainment and news that you see online as you do about the risks of cyberbullying and exploitation. Encourage them to use privacy settings and to censor how much information they give out online. 
  • Encourage them to spend more with people time face-to-face. Invite their friends over. Eat meals together. Encourage them to participate in extracurricular activities they’re passionate about. The internet, particularly social media, helps teens stay connected to the social world, but it doesn’t compare to quality time.
  • Talk about how to rebuild trust. The cycle of compulsive phone use and digital grounding takes a toll on family relationships. While they may get defensive that you are being sensitive, it is helpful to use “I” statements to be direct about how you are impact by their technology use rather than placing blame on them. Family therapy can be a helpful outlet for families to openly talk about how their dynamic has changed.
  • Consider things from their perspective. Many teens who are struggling with technology addiction turn to screen time to cope with underlying issues that they may be avoiding or may not even be aware of. It’s easy to focus on the “problem behavior,” but there are often other issues that deserve more attention. If your teen is also struggling with depression, anxiety, or relationships, reaching out for professional help can help them address the bigger picture of why they are addicted to technology.
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Technology Addiction Treatment Options for Teens 

  • Outpatient Therapy may be a useful technology addiction treatment for families to talk about conflict arising from their teen’s technology use with a neutral third-party adult. A therapist can help mediate between family members or make suggestions about setting boundaries, but the process of changing technology habits may feel slow and difficult.
  • Residential Treatment Centers are effective for teens who need more support with other mental health struggles, which are very common in people struggling with internet addiction. The focus of these programs is on how technology has affected their ability to enjoy hobbies, maintain friendships, and cope with stressors in a healthy way. 
  • Therapeutic Boarding Schools are recommended for teens who have fallen behind in school or are struggling socially as they balance group therapy with academic support in smaller classrooms. While they offer individual and group therapy for mental health issues, their focus is addressing how technology use has affected their academic performance and future goals and teaching teens to use technology more mindfully.
  • Wilderness Therapy is a good fit for teens who are struggling to change their technology habits and would benefit from a change in their environment to focus on themselves. Spending time away from Wi-Fi may feel outside of your teen’s comfort zone, but may help them realize that they do not need to be so reliant on technology. Wilderness programs that offer adventure activities can help teens find alternative social activities that help them build confidence and encourage them to connect with others on a deeper level. 
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Types of Therapy

  • Every person’s individual treatment plan depends on a variety of factors. Technology abuse is often a symptom of other issues. Some of the therapeutic approaches we use to help teens struggling with technology addiction include:
  • Experiential Therapy: One of the biggest challenges teens face in overcoming technology addiction is replacing technology with healthier social activities. Experiential approaches, like adventure therapy, can help teens discover new interests that can serve as coping mechanisms.
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) focuses on changing unhealthy behaviors through developing skills related to mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (DBT) focuses on changing belief systems that reinforce continued video game abuse, often related to self-esteem and goals.
  • Motivational Interviewing is used to increase student’s motivation and help them make a commitment to change unhealthy behaviors by identifying personal values and setting personal goals.
  • Narrative Therapy helps students separate their view of themselves from their problems by allowing students to get some distance from their issues to see how it is either helping or hurting them. Instead of viewing themselves as phone or video game addicts, they begin to understand how abusing technology has affected other areas of their lives.

Therapeutic Goals

When removed from the distractions of the digital world, teens are better able to focus on what they would want their life to look like if they were less dependent on technology. As technology addiction encompasses a wide range of obsessions, from video games to social media, therapists work with teens on an individual basis to create a personalized treatment plan. Some treatment goals that teens may work on during wilderness therapy may include:

  • Identifying personal strengths and interests
  • Building confidence and self-esteem
  • Improving family or social relationships
  • Taking better care of themselves, through exercise and nutrition
  • Taking personal responsibility for behaviors and the effect it may have on others
  • Working with others as a team
  • Reaching out to others for support

How Does Wilderness Therapy at blueFire Help Provide Technology Addiction Treatment For Teens?

At blueFire Wilderness Therapy, we take students out of their high-stress, fast-paced lives and immerse them in a nurturing, calm, wilderness environment. Just the stark contrast between the two places is often enough for a teen to begin to focus on healing themselves. Many of the teens we work with have had limited experience with outdoor activities, at least on a regular basis, which adds to how transformative a wilderness experience can be. The combination of the power of nature with evidence-based therapy is a strong treatment for teen depression that has changed the lives of many students.

Benefits of Wilderness Therapy Programs

Community Setting: Teens quickly bond with their leaders and peers in small groups, which creates a support system that encourages their progress. This social support is key for teens who have had difficulty connecting with and trusting others.
Healing Atmosphere: Spending a few weeks in the woods is a low-pressure environment for participants to focus on working toward their goals. This encourages them to take things one step at a time rather than getting overwhelmed by the bigger picture. Time spent outside, whether engaging in physical activity or sitting around a fire, is also associated with significant health benefits, including but not limited to improved mood, lower stress levels, and more energy

New Experiences: Teens who spend a lot of time playing video games agree that part of the draw is escaping into beautifully-designed virtual worlds. They may find that their wilderness experience is a lot like video games in this way, where they are completing missions in “unfamiliar lands.”

Becoming More Physically Active. Struggling with depression or technology addiction can make it hard to want to spend time outside. Adventure-based therapy might include rock climbing, camping, canoeing, or mountain biking. This sets them apart from other wilderness programs that focus more on outdoor skills and backpacking.

Discovering New Social Activities and Ways to Connect. Outdoor activities for teens addicted to technology teach teens how to unplug from technology, collaborate with others and develop meaningful relationships offline. No prior outdoor experience is required to build confidence in these activities and the lessons they offer for everyday life.

Treatment Options for Defiant Teens

  • Outpatient Therapy may be useful for families to talk about conflict arising from their teen’s defiance with a neutral third-party adult. A therapist can help mediate between family members or make suggestions about setting boundaries, but the process of developing mutual respect may feel slow and difficult.
  • Residential Treatment Centers are effective for teens who need more support with other mental health struggles, which are very common in people struggling with Oppositional Defiance Disorder. The focus of these programs is on how defiance has affected their ability to maintain friendships, earn trust from others, and cope with stressors in a healthy way. 
  • Therapeutic Boarding Schools are recommended for teens who have fallen behind in school or are struggling socially as they balance group therapy with academic support in smaller classrooms. While they offer individual and group therapy for mental health issues, their focus is addressing how defiance has affected their academic performance and future goals.
  • Wilderness Therapy is a good fit for defiant teens who are struggling to follow rules and would benefit from a change in their environment to focus on themselves. Group outdoor activities may feel outside of your teen’s comfort zone, but may help them learn the power of collaboration and communication. Adventure-based wilderness programs help teens build confidence and encourage them to connect with others on a deeper level.

Therapeutic Goals

  • Taking responsibility for personal actions and the effect it may have on others
  • Learning how to manage anger and express needs
  • Practicing assertiveness and communication skills
  • Working with others as a team
  • Improving family or social relationships
  • Practicing making healthy independent decisions