By Cosette Rae, MSW, LICSW; Alison Takenaka, MA; Johnny Tock, MS, LMHC; and Gail Curran, MS, MBA, IECA (AZ)

In this era of high-speed technological discovery, technology is everywhere: in our schools, in our homes, and in the hands of millions of youth worldwide. Our children’s dependence on technology now often starts before they can walk and talk.

For better or worse, as mental health professionals and independent educational consultants (IECs), we only know what we know. And what we know now about digital media use is that it masquerades as acceptable youthful behavior in a variety of settings. In reality, dependency on screens may in fact be the root cause of academic, emotional, physical, and social failures facing children and families today. Addressing it requires a different mindset and clinical approach than what we’ve grown familiar with.

First Responders

As an IEC, you play a critical role in matching struggling families with appropriate models of care in the treatment community. You are ideally positioned to connect your clients to resources that can focus on a client’s anxiety or depression, while also addressing screen use and dependence. At this point of emerging awareness, it is necessary to rely on IECs to assess for both mental health and screen dependence. Currently, many mental health professionals do not test for video game or technology overuse or dependence, have not received formal training in process addictions, and struggle to keep up with the ever-changing digital landscape. Their assessment results may indicate a variety of alarming mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, or trauma, but will likely miss the key markers associated with problematic screen use or dependence.

We are all continually blindsided by a whole new paradigm of brain changing, behavior altering devices that leave everyone at an utter loss for measuring their effects. Therefore, once you begin to address screen dependence in those seeking your services, it is incumbent upon you as the referring professional to adequately screen for problematic digital use, regardless of professional trends. The Brief Internet Game Screen (BIGS) and the Brief Internet Game Screen for Parents (BIGS-P), designed by ReSTART, are effective screening tools to use in your practice. The results of the BIGS-P screen may indicate struggles with problematic technology use occurring in the family system.

Talking Points

When dealing with parents of teens and emerging adults with problematic tech issues, be prepared to address the following concerns:

Parents may feel alone in the struggle to help manage their child’s media use. Listen, offer support, and educate family members on the nature of problematic tech use. By doing so, you likely become the first professional who truly “understands” what they’ve been going through. Connecting with you offers families a sense of hope.

Parents may feel a sense of shame or guilt about their son or daughter’s problematic tech use, believing they have failed as parents. Help family members understand their pivotal role in their child’s ability to embrace healthier, sustainable tech use. By recognizing the problem and taking action, families join you as pioneers in this new digital arena. You’re in it together, and you’ll find solutions together—not by avoiding the problem, but by understanding how screen use plays a crucial role in their child’s academic achievement, mental health, family, and future relationships.

Parents may not know how to communicate their concerns about digital media use to their children. Model healthy awareness and start the dialogue with young people and their parents on the importance of sustainable tech use and the need to recognize problematic use early. Dig deeper during the assessment process regarding the ways that digital media is used to avoid dealing with family or academic problems.

Parents may not understand the extent to which their children are engaging with digital media. Encourage parents to be curious about their son’s or daughter’s activities online. Ask questions, observe, and make notes about the trends they identify in their child’s technology use.

Parents may be in conflict about what constitutes problematic use and what next steps for treatment looks like. Encourage each family member to educate themselves on the addictive nature of digital technology. Resources include Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked (Alter, 2017, Penguin), the film Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital World (www.screenagersmovie.com), and a recent 60 Minutes segment called “Brain Hacking” (www.cbsnews.com/news/brain-hacking-tech-insiders-60-minutes).

When speaking with young people, keep the following advice in mind:

• Youth resist terms used by professionals to describe treatment for problematic tech use, like “rehab,” “treatment,” and even the idea of addiction itself.

• It is more beneficial to focus on such phrases as “balanced use,” “readjust priorities,” or “sustainable use” than “addiction,” “dependence,” or “abstinence.”

• Emerging adults often understand their use is problematic, but would rather not address it. They often hope that it will resolve itself naturally. Clearly, there is a lack of understanding among young people regarding the addictive nature of digital media use in general.

• It is difficult for young people to grasp the idea that their screen use is problematic when they observe others close to them—e.g., family members, peers, and other adult role models—overconsuming digital media.

A Lifeline

Technology will continue to advance at a staggering pace, and parents are desperately seeking solutions to guide them and their children toward a future of limitless possibilities and enduring family ties. As first responders to this technological crisis, IECs act as a lifeline to parents who feel as if they are watching their child’s life slip away. Treating technology overdependence requires a clear understanding of the complex interactions between mental health and digital media use. Without screening for problematic technology use, you run the risk of missing a determining factor in directing struggling families to the appropriate model of care.

Note: The BIGS and BIGS-P screening tools are available upon request and at no charge by contacting Johnny Tock at [email protected] or 800-682-6934, ext. 5.

Cosette Rae can be reached at [email protected] Alison Takenaka can be at [email protected] Johnny Tock can be reached at [email protected] Gail Curran can be reached at [email protected]

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