Student: Netflix, Reddit served as ‘coping mechanism for life’
By Sarah Kuta
Will Jeffery used to spend hours — sometimes days — alternating between playing video games, binge-watching TV shows on Netflix and mindlessly scrolling through the online forum Reddit.
When he checked into a rehab facility a few years ago, a therapist helped him realize that screen time was just as much of a problem for him as cocaine, pot and alcohol.
“I used drugs, alcohol, video games, Reddit and Netflix bingeing as a coping mechanism for life,” said Jeffery, a 25-year-old Toronto native who will soon start his second year of classes at the University of Colorado. “For whatever reason, I never developed the tools to tolerate uncomfortable emotions.
“And so I found these things as my tools.”
Jeffery, whose struggles led him to drop out of college in Canada, has found community at CU through the Collegiate Recovery Center, which supports students recovering from addiction, including those for whom technology — Netflix, Facebook, video games, pornography — is their drug of choice.
In our technology-saturated world, therapists say there is an increasing need for services and support groups that address screen addiction, which often goes hand-in-hand with substance-use disorders and mental-health issues.
“What we see here is just like other areas where someone might struggle,” said Sam Randall, program manager for CU’s Collegiate Recovery Center. “It’s often that the student might be seeking something that the screen time is giving them. For some, it’s a form of escape. For others, it might be a form of connection or a form of release.”
The center began hosting support group meetings last spring for students grappling with technology overuse. The Internet and Technology Addiction Anonymous group meets Thursdays at the center, which is located on the ground floor of the University Memorial Center. Between five and 12 students attend those meetings depending on the time of year, which is on par with other support groups offered at CU, Randall said.
South Korea and China began recognizing Internet addiction, specifically online gaming, as a health problem in the mid-2000s, which led to the development of boot camp-style treatment facilities.
Based on research coming out of South Korea and China, some American psychiatrists have advocated for adding internet addiction to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM), which is commonly used by mental health practitioners. The current version of the DSM lists internet gaming disorder as a condition that warrants further study.
Tracy Markle, a Boulder therapist who specializes in technology overuse and other mental health issues, said people become addicted to pornography, online shopping, social media, games and informational websites like blogs, news sites and forums.
The compulsion to play video games for hours or watch hundreds of YouTube videos is classified by researchers as a process or behavior addiction. Gambling, food and sex addictions are also categorized this way.
As with other types of addiction, scrolling Facebook constantly or playing video games triggers the reward system in the brain, which makes people feel good. They crave more of that feeling and thus repeat the behavior, Markle said.
Technology use or addiction?
Like any other addiction, technology use becomes a problem when it starts impacting other facets of a person’s life, said Markle, who’s collaborating with other therapists on a clinical handbook on the treatment of internet addiction in children and adolescents.
Markle, owner and clinical director of Collegiate Coaching Services in Boulder, primarily works with young adults ages 18 to 30, though she works with people of all ages. Her clients’ parents are often involved in their treatment, which can range from academic coaching to therapeutic methods.
“Their grades are declining, they’re not attending class,” Markle said. “They’re not as effective at work. Their sleep is greatly impacted. Or they quit work all together. Other areas we look for to determine if it’s a problem — is there a mood change? Is this person isolated? Have they cut themselves off from others?”
Markle said the number of hours a person spends in front of a screen does not determine whether they have an addiction.
The screen itself is also not necessarily the problem, said CU’s Randall. Screens, which are in nearly every young adult’s pocket, are simply a mechanism for avoiding real emotions, escaping from the real world or avoiding in-person interactions, Randall said. For some CU students, the mechanism is a science fiction novel.
Some students find it easier to operate in an online world, where they have more control over their interactions. But always choosing to interact online can lead to further social anxiety and isolation, Randall said.
Others may turn to screens to dissociate from their body after experiencing trauma.
“The tool itself, the screen, isn’t necessarily the problem,” Randall 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.”
Again, those students staring down at their phones may not have a problem. Randall said another indicator is that the person continues the behavior, even when it’s causing them harm or getting in the way of things they really want to do.
Randall said she hears tales of students “going down the rabbit hole of Reddit.”
“For students to say, ‘I would like to change that and this weekend I’m going to get out,’ but then they say, ‘OK, well, I’m just going to do this one thing on my computer,’ and four hours later the sun’s gone down and they haven’t gone out … they’re lost in it,” she said.
‘At the mercy of screens’
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.
When clients seeking therapeutic treatment begin working with Markle, she first asks them to abstain from technology entirely for a period of time. Clients can do this at a residential treatment center or at home, though that requires everyone living with the client to abstain from technology as well.
With the help of a coach, the client will begin to attend scheduled social activities to help boost their comfort level with face-to-face interactions. (Some of her clients are also dealing with social anxiety issues or have been diagnosed with autism.)
“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.”
Eventually, she’ll begin reintroducing screens. Markle and her team install a program on the client’s devices to track how much time they spend using technology and what they’re using it for.
That software can also block websites or programs if necessary. Eventually, the software goes away, too.
If the treatment is successful, clients become aware of the reasons behind their technology overuse and can recognize when they’re starting to slip.
“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.'”
Another hard truth for mental health professionals is the prevalence and importance of technology everywhere — from K-12 classrooms to restaurants to the beach.
“I have a lot of parents calling me because they are very active people and engaged in the world and they do not want their kids to be behind screens,” Markle said. “More times than not, I find the parent overuses screens, too. That’s part of the culture. There’s no talking at dinner. The screens are always on or part of the relationship.”
CU’s Randall, who spends a lot of her time with college students, acknowledged that, to some degree, screen overuse is embedded into our world.
“It’s very common for most people to be like, ‘Oh, I’m so addicted to my phone or my Facebook,'” she said. “The truth is, there may be a mild form of that just in our culture.”
For Jeffery, the CU student who used to binge on his “trifecta” of cocaine, alcohol and video games, the way he defines abstinence from technology has varied over the last year.
When he first got to CU, he didn’t allow himself to play video games at all and he limited himself to 30 minutes a day on Reddit. He didn’t have internet at his apartment, so he had to trek to campus to go online.
Now, he has looser rules because he’s generally good at self-policing his behavior, he said.
Jeffery is trying to get into CU’s College of Engineering and Applied Science and, with the support of the Collegiate Recovery Center, he plans to finally earn the college degree that drugs, alcohol and video games got in the way of earlier in life.
“I definitely still struggle with (addiction),” Jeffery said. “My biggest challenge is my personal willpower and boundaries, because there’s no one looking over my shoulder. So that’s where my relationship with (the center) falls into place. It’s been invaluable.”