Adolescents' Tech Addiction Is A Growing Problem, Therapists Say

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Adolescents' Tech Addiction Is A Growing Problem, Therapists Say

MPR - Adolescents' Tech Addiction Is A Growing Problem, Therapists Say

June 17, 20195:02 AM ET
Heard on  Morning Edition



A Minnesota clinic says 75 percent of its adolescent clients overuse technology, and wind up receiving addiction treatment for that while dealing with other issues.


Addiction therapists are confronting a problem - kids who are spending too much time online. Being addicted to the Internet is not officially a recognized disorder, which means there's no established criteria for treatment. But clinics say they're seeing more and more worried parents. Mike Moen of Minnesota Public Radio has that story.

MIKE MOEN, BYLINE: Do a quick search for most kinds of addiction treatment, and you'll come up with instant results - gambling, drugs or alcohol, sex addiction; the list goes on. But what about treatment for excessive use of online video games or smartphones? That's more problematic because it's not something that can be diagnosed in the U.S. Experts are still debating whether someone can be addicted to a tech device or if it's merely an extension of an underlying condition, like depression or anxiety. Dr. Shalene Kennedy has seen this scenario before.

SHALENE KENNEDY: When I was in my training, juvenile bipolar disorder didn't exist as a diagnosis. But those of us who were working clinically were seeing juvenile bipolar.

MOEN: Kennedy runs a psychiatric clinic for children and adolescents just outside of St. Paul. And just like bipolar disorder, she says those on the frontlines are seeing troubling patterns with kids hooked on technology.

KENNEDY: We have had kids that threaten or do assault family members who are trying to get them off of it.

MOEN: The World Health Organization recently recognized gaming disorder as a behavioral addiction. Despite growing research, the U.S. isn't ready to go that far. Because technology addiction isn't listed as a disorder in the U.S. guidebook for psychiatrists, a parent can't walk into a clinic and simply get a diagnosis for their child. But that isn't stopping specialists like Kennedy from trying to help adolescents to detach themselves from social media or unplug their Xbox. Kennedy says they usually work around the issue by getting a formal diagnosis for an underlying condition.

KENNEDY: Almost always it comes with what we would call a comorbidity, where there is some type of, you know, behavior, mood, dysregulation (ph) that comes along with it.

MOEN: And the treatment often follows some criteria used for established addictions like gambling. Despite the willingness of some clinics to take on these cases, options for parents remain very limited. Trish Vanni, a Minnesota pastor, says she and her husband tried several times to get help for their son, who she says played online video games nonstop in his teens and early 20s.

TRISH VANNI: It was a wasteland of help, an absolute wasteland. And it was so frustrating. And I had so many friends who said to me, oh, but, you know, it could be so much work (ph); you know, he could be a drug addict.

MOEN: But her son is not addicted to drugs. And Vanni says, when researching facilities dedicated only to technology, she could only find a handful of retreats across the country that cost tens of thousands of dollars. Meanwhile, she says her son's condition became more acute.

VANNI: He couldn't even leave the house, couldn't hold a job, couldn't be responsible for his rent and to his roommates.

MOEN: Vanni eventually found a local therapist able to help kids with their tech habits. He put her in touch with Julian Sheats, a 39-year-old St. Paul man who struggled with his video game habit since his late teens. The two now administer a 12-step program together. Sheats says the face-to-face discussions provide a much-needed support system. But he says having the ability to be diagnosed by a licensed professional would make things a whole lot easier.

JULIAN SHEATS: Having that now as saying it's not something you have to be confused about or feel like an outsider about; rather, you just have a medical condition just as much as if you had rheumatoid arthritis, I think would relieve a lot of the stress of these young individuals.

MOEN: And Sheats says that might prompt more overwhelmed gamers to put down their joysticks and seek professional help.

For NPR News, I'm Mike Moen, in St. Paul.

Liz Woolley