College Helps Its Students Power Down From Tech Addiction
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College Helps Its Students Power Down From Tech Addiction


College Helps Its Students Power Down From Tech AddictionIf you’re three-quarters into a Master of None binge on Netflix, going on your 13th hour of Fallout 4, mindlessly swiping up on your smartphone, or tumbling down some Wikipedia rabbit hole late at night, you may have an addiction that’s every bit as ruinous and real as any drug addiction. You’re also not alone. Far from it. Screen addiction has taken a quiet toll on millions of people worldwide, distracting some while isolating others. According to The Daily Camera, the University of Colorado, Boulder is actually doing something about it. A recovery center at the college is now offering support groups and special dorm rooms to students who find themselves fighting screen addiction. While the college’s services are unique, they are necessary, filling an ever-growing need to help students disconnect from technology and plug back into their lives.

Working Behind the Screens

The CU Boulder Collegiate Recovery Center’s new tech-addiction program is a response to the number of students who admit they can’t stop checking Facebook or trolling Reddit. An addiction, however, isn’t measured in amount of time spent on a tablet screen. “A lot of times people mistake [addiction]for how often somebody uses [a device],” Daniel Conroy, the center’s director, observed. “That’s not necessarily the indication. The real indication is how much it’s interfering with your relationships and how much it’s keeping you from other things you want to do.”

The school’s support groups aim to provide relief for any student who’s recovering from “technology overuse,” which includes addiction to video games, online shopping, social media and pornography. “I’ve seen people who have had gaming addiction so bad that they don’t come out of their room for three days,” Conroy said. While those cases may be the exception, there’s no guarantee they won’t become the rule in a society steeped in wi-fi. Held once a week, the Internet and Technology Addiction Anonymous group is attended by up to a dozen students at a time “depending on the time of year, which is on par with other support groups offered at CU.” If nothing else, it’s proof positive that students who isolate themselves aren’t isolated cases.

A Prison In Your Pocket

Almost every day, it seems like there’s yet another alarming story about how iPads are ruining kids’ developing brains and hardwiring them into slack-jawed tech addicts. It should be no surprise, then, that experts are treating screen addiction like cocaine or heroin. Tracy Markle, a mental health therapist in Boulder, says it comes down to a simple matter of what feels good. Getting Facebook “likes” on a status update, or having people retweet one of your clever posts is powerful. These things light up the brain’s reward center, causing people to keep returning to the screen for another jolt of dopamine. “We literally are at the mercy of screens unless we have awareness around how much texting and Facebook trigger us to want to constantly have them in front of us,” Markle said. “Part of the treatment is helping clients and their parents understand the brain chemistry and reward system so then they can say, ‘Wow, I need to take steps to stop this.’”

Markle claims the warning signs of tech addiction are relatively easy to spot, including falling grades, poor work performance, moodiness and avoiding face-to-face interactions. The blue glow of computer screens is oftentimes nearly impossible to avoid, though. As The Daily Camera story points out, “the trouble with treating technology addiction—and other process addictions—is that it’s difficult for someone to completely abstain from using a computer or a phone, which are likely requirements for school and work.” It’d be like being a food addict who works the front counter of a donut shop. When it comes right down to it, there’s only so much self-control one person can have without getting help.

Anywhere But Here

Digital screens provide windows into other worlds, possibilities and lives—virtual realms that some people may simply find easier to navigate. Online spaces can give people “more control over their interactions,” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. According to Sam Randall, the Collegiate Recovery Center’s program manager, it’s the behavior of constantly checking an iPhone for messages that’s the real problem. “The tool itself, the screen, isn’t necessarily the problem,” he said. “It’s just that the compulsion to find my connection only through that screen takes me out of the human experience. I certainly see that on campus all the time. People are sitting around in what would normally be a social interaction situation. Instead they’re sitting on their phones scrolling through their Facebook feed or whatever.”

Tech addiction therapy begins with abstaining from all digital devices “entirely for a period of time,” Markle says of her approach. While her clients can accomplish this in a residential treatment center or in the comfort of their own home, the college now has an eight-person campus dorm that’s dedicated to limited tech abstinence. For the most part, it’s no smartphones, no tablets and no computers. Markle says her treatment method is rooted in helping clients build confidence in social interactions. “That’s the core of any successful treatment in relation to Internet addiction,” she said. “If they don’t learn and start finding pleasure in social connections, chances are they’ll go back to screen overuse issues.” As social interactions improve, she slowly reintroduces screens back into her clients’ lives, but not without a catch. Markle’s team install temporary tracking software on clients’ devices to monitor everything from their time spent online to how they’re using the technology. The software can also be tailored to block specific programs or websites.

Programs like UC Boulder’s recovery groups and Markle’s treatment program underscore one crucial point. The problem isn’t about being addicted to Snapchat or Facebook—it’s an addiction to being connected to anywhere but here. “It’s often that the student might be seeking something that the screen time is giving them,” Randall said of his school’s program. “For some, it’s a form of escape. For others, it might be a form of connection or a form of release.” While it’s true that tech addicts may be desperately seeking a connection but, without setting limits, they’ll remain disconnected from who matters the very most: themselves.

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About Author

Paul Fuhr is an addiction recovery writer whose work has appeared in The Literary Review, The Live Oak Review, The Sobriety Collective and InRecovery Magazine, among others. He is the author of the alcoholism memoir “Bottleneck.” He's also the creator and co-host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and recovery. Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and their cats, Dr. No and Goldeneye.