The Digital Drug: Psychologists see growing internet addiction among teens

Local News

MASON, Ohio (WDTN) – In the several years leading up to Danny Reagan’s junior year of high school, his grades were slipping and he had dropped out of almost all of the sports, clubs and activities he once loved.

Instead of spending time outdoors and with friends, the Mason teen was filling many hours each day scrolling through YouTube and playing online games.

“There’s a video I want to watch and I just click it. And then 10 minutes pass, turn into an hour and it keeps piling on,” Danny explained.

At first, his parents ascribed Danny’s changing interests to typical teenage behavior. Andy and Laurie Reagan had always strictly monitored their children’s screen time, setting limits on iPad use and encouraging involvement in extracurricular activities. By the time they realized it was more than adolescent angst, Danny’s habits had become self-destructive.

“He was exhibiting behaviors that would go with a drug addict, cutting ties with all friendships, being almost like a hermit, hygiene going away,” Andy Reagan recalled.

Laurie Reagan added, “No he’s not doing drugs, no he’s not doing other vices; but yes, he spends an enormous amount of time on his electronics.”

Danny explained he didn’t realize his online use was extreme at the time, but in hindsight also likens it to addiction.

“It was like a drug,” he said. “That’s as close of an analogy as you can get.”

With extensive research, the Reagans found a program at the Lindner Center of HOPE, near their Mason home, specializing in internet addiction. In Dr. Chris Tuell’s office, they discovered a growing number of teenagers are seeking treatment for issues similar to Danny’s.

Dr. Tuell explained his concern for the mental health of young people spending more time online and less time developing real relationships.

“We’re more and more disconnected, even though we have this false sense of being connected through digital devices,” he said.

The World Health Organization recently classified “Gaming Disorder” as a mental health condition, and Dr. Tuell is among the psychologists beginning to refer to the larger problem as “Internet Use Disorder.” He expects it will eventually become a clinical diagnosis.

Doctors note those suspected of having the disorder exhibit similar warning signs to other addictions, know as the “Three C’s.”

As incidents of the disorder became more common in the clinic, the Lindner Center of HOPE established “Reboot” in fall of 2018. The 28-day residential program is tailored for 11-17 year-olds struggling with internet addiction. It begins with a 2-week comprehensive assessment to diagnose any underlying mental health conditions, which usually accompany behavioral addictions.

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“This became a strategy for many people — a way to escape, a way to cope, a way to disconnect from those types of situations in their life,” Dr. Tuell explained.

Danny’s situation also fit the trend. He was diagnosed with anxiety and ADHD a decade before entering treatment.

“They told us he has out of control anxiety,” Laurie Reagan said. “He is using this to deaden those feelings of stress or fear or being overwhelmed.”

Once the program determined why Danny was turning to his electronic escape, they developed a treatment plan with him and his parents to help him cope with the anxiety.

The 16-year-old was better equipped to handle his internet addiction after getting his mental health under control. With technology integrated into daily life and school work, Danny now relies on timers to regulate screen time and said developing better social skills has been his most effective tool.

“I’ve changed socially more than anything,” he said. “I feel like that is the most important part because that allows me to put my video games down and go spend time with more friends.”

Andy and Laurie Reagan said their biggest piece of advice to other parents is to pay attention to not only their child’s internet use, but also their mental well-being.

Similarly, Dr. Tuell reminds parents avoiding technology completely is impractical. Instead, he recommends forging a healthy relationship, comparing it eating a healthy diet.

“What is digital nutrition? What’s the healthy part? What’s the vegetables? What’s the sugar?” he said.

MORE INFORMATION

Get more Information about the ‘Reboot’ program at Lindner Center of HOPE’s Williams House: https://lindnercenterofhope.org/treatment-options/residential/internet-addiction/

Co-occurring Disorders: https://lindnercenterofhope.org/what-we-treat/co-occurring-disorders/

World Health Organization’s page on Gaming Disorder: https://www.who.int/substance_abuse/activities/gaming_disorders/en/

Center for Internet Addiction Recovery: https://www.healthyplace.com/addictions/center-for-internet-addiction-recovery/internet-online-addiction

Mental Health America on internet addiction: https://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/conditions/risky-business-internet-addiction

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