Lindner Center starts teenage internet addiction program

Lauren Serge | Managing Editor

Chances are you are suffering from an addiction and you don’t even know it.

If you spend more than three hours a day online or glued to a device, your mental health is at risk according to a 2017 study. Factors such as this lead the World Health Organization to recently identify gaming addiction as a disorder. Now, locally, the Lindner Center in Mason has launched a program entitled Reboot targeted at helping teenagers overcome addiction to their screens.

The Reboot Program

ReBoot is a 28-day residential program located in the Linder Center’s Williams house, where adolescents bearing depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and trauma also stay to rehabilitate. The youth live at the center, attend school and receive therapy throughout the day. Reboot is offered to individuals aged 11 to 18, as long as they continue to go to high school, and it aims to educate them on positive internet usage.

Dr. Chris Tuell, the Clinical Director of Addictive Services at the Lindner Center of HOPE, said the program’s specialization on internet addiction in the Mason area was the response to a trend of teenagers coming to the center with the issue in recent years. Tuell said the perception of the addiction is held in the same regard as other common addictions.

“The brain doesn’t really care what it is,” Tuell said. “The brain doesn’t care if I pour it down my throat, or put it in my nose, or see it with my eyes. The same neurochemicals are happening within the brain. And what we find a lot of times, with adults and with adolescents, is that those who have mental health issues, like depression, anxiety, suicide, and trauma, they will utilize devices or the internet, as a way of coping or escaping, or numbing out from those issues, just like alcohol or a drug would do.”

The Addiction

The difference between the constant accessibility to the internet as opposed to drugs and alcohol, according to Tuell, is what increases the development of an addiction. This, coupled with the dependency on digital devices, allows teenagers to use technology to aid existent mental illnesses.

“This program looks at not only the internet addiction piece, but also, what are some underlying mental health issues that may be driving it as well,” Tuell said. “A lot of times, they’ll come in with things like depression and anxiety, and they’re usually not going to be the first ones to say they have a gaming problem. But after we do an assessment, we’ll find out that they have this addictive behavior that is utilized as a way to try to deal with their depression or anxiety.”

Many mental health issues can be fueled by a teenager’s persistent usage of technology and social media. Senior Zack Tepe attributed technology’s impact on mental health to its elements of dissatisfaction as well as the coverage of negative topics prevalent on social media outlets.

“On social media, you’re constantly looking at other people’s lives, and how things have impacted other people, so when looking at it, you’re left feeling kind of empty,” Tepe said. “I guess people are constantly fueled by the negativity of social media and that’s all they’re around if they’re just on their phone all the time.”

The Diagnosis

Much like alcohol or drug addictions, there are some individuals who can use technology and never develop a problematic lifestyle. However, Tuell said there are specific guidelines that enable the professionals at the Lindner Center to diagnose someone with an internet addiction.

“What we call the Three C’s: is there a loss of control? Is the behavior compulsive that they can’t stop doing it? And probably the most important of the three is that they continue to do it despite the negative consequences,” Tuell said. “They continue to do it knowing that it is affecting their relationships, hurting their grades, they might lose their jobs. So they continue to do it despite all of those negative consequences that are happening in their lives, just like any other addiction.”

During the program, patients receive clinical assessments and are provided with individual therapy and group work with psychiatric and psychological professionals. After the first couple weeks, patients attend psychoeducational programs to aid their development. Tuell said the treatment team guides the patients into healthy digital usage, by almost reintroducing them to the internet.

“The way we kind of look at it is almost like food,” Tuell said. “There’s healthy food, like vegetables, and then there’s sugars. The sugars, when it comes to the internet, are things like gaming, pornography, hyper-surfing, hyper-texting, these things that release that level of dopamine. The vegetables are kind of the good part of the internet, whether it’s education, information, research, or connecting with others. It’s learning how to develop a better digital nutrition, we call it.”

Social Media’s Impact

This differentiation between technology that is beneficial or detrimental was what influenced junior Lindy Tran to delete her social media. Tran said she realized her time was widely spent on her device in meaningless habitual acts to captivate her.

“I noticed that Instagram implemented this thing where it showed you how often you used the app, and throughout the day it totaled up my activity to six hours of just scrolling through,” Tran said. “I noticed it would be between classes where I could be doing homework or talking to friends, but I would just scroll through, and it wouldn’t be useful information, it would be the same posts, the same memes, but different variations over and over that would keep my attention.”

Tran said her obligation to check social media was due in part to its ability to spark conversations and feel as though she was not missing out on a viral occurrence. Despite this, Tran said the toxicity of the content on social media prompted the deletion of her accounts.

“I usually don’t really think negatively, but then you see the comments or captions on Instagram and I noticed that I was almost mimicking the drama posts on there,” Tran said. “A lot of the thoughts I’m having were because I saw them on social media a lot, like criticizing someone. I would go into a room and do that in person, so I decided I needed to reset and deleted everything.”

Beginning Healthy Use

Through the Reboot program, Tuell said teenagers have acquired capabilities to diminish the negative and harmful effects of the internet.

“We’ve seen youth who have gone through the program and develop better ways of coping with stress or tension in their life, or depression,” Tuell said. “So, giving them skills, how to manage their time on the internet in a healthy way, and also working with the family so they have a better idea of what to do at home with respect to this issue.”

Despite the progression of technology in the lives of adolescents, Tuell said the elevation of internet addiction highlights the need for favorable and productive internet usage.

“This is an issue that we are seeing, that there is research supporting it, and it’s becoming more and more of a concern within our culture,” Tuell said. “But the internet is always going to be around, and it’s going to be in their jobs in the future, and it’s part of their school, so they have to learn how to regulate it, and how to use the internet in a healthy way.”

Graphic by Ryan D’Souza.