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Evaluating Technology Use with Mindfulness and Intention

Kim Kelley, M.Ed., LPC | Clinical Therapist | Adolescent Girls Group

Featured Team Members: Kim Kelley, M.Ed., LPC, EMDR Certified

My husband is a software engineer who telecommutes and is passionate about technology. As you can imagine, our home hums with machines and gadgets powered by the latest and greatest software. One positive about this is our ongoing conversations about technology addiction. When he worked for a large video game company, I would (somewhat jokingly) tell him he did “the devil’s work,” because of the negative impact technology had on some of the children and families I worked with in my private practice. My husband and I continue to exchange opinions and facts about what we find in the news and/or research concerning how technology is used, and what we each feel is balanced for our lifestyle.

My clients have offered many conflicting opinions about the signs and symptoms of technology addiction in their families. Is this due to an increasing generational divide with regard to technology use and values about what is “normal” vs. “dependent,” or is there a consistent set of criteria that all of us can evaluate as we monitor our children’s use as well as our own?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) is the handbook used by health care professionals in the United States as the authoritative guide to the diagnosis of mental disorders. There is insufficient evidence to warrant inclusion of Internet Gaming Disorder/Internet use Disorder/ Internet Addiction as an official mental disorder diagnosis. Without official criteria, I look for the following traits when working with families:

  • Preoccupation or obsession with technology
  • Withdrawal symptoms when not using technology
  • Increasingly more time spent using technology for the same effect (tolerance)
  • Inability to stop when desired
  • Loss of interest and/or lack of investment in other life activities and interests
  • Continued use despite negative consequences, i.e., poor academic performance, diminished self-care, fewer friends or family connections
  • Knowingly misrepresenting the frequency and duration of technology use
  • Using technology to escape problems or to relieve negative emotions
  • More than 8 hours per day and at least 30 hours per week using technology (outside required school work needs)

Reviewing the above behaviors, I am reminded of the power of wilderness. Living in an environment free of technology encourages students to face the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that negatively impact them. After 24 years as a professional counselor working with children and families, I believe all behavior has meaning. The powerful wilderness setting provides the student with a testing ground to experiment with positive coping skills to address the underlying reasons for their technology addiction behavior. We use the Open Sky Student Pathway to guide this process:

  1. ‘I Feel’ Statements build understanding and connection between two (or more) people. It also helps the student learn to identify their emotions.
  2. The 4-Line Feelings Check helps to ground a person in the moment by identifying Body, Heart, Mind, and Soul. Instead of avoiding or ignoring the present, it is brought to the surface.
  3. The Cognitive Triangle builds awareness, tolerance, and understanding of how thoughts, feelings, and behaviors interact. By understanding our internal connections between these three areas, we can build understanding of others as well. Awareness is a critical key in change.
  4. Coping/Centering Skills highlight several tools that help calm the body, mind, and spirit. I have found that each person is drawn to one or two of these as their ‘go-to’ in times of stress. By trying a variety, a student can choose what they respond to most.
  5. Journaling is a positive coping skill students often resist at first, but it yields a great amount of spontaneous internal feedback. Writing is a powerful way to connect the mind and body. Putting words down on paper forces the student to slow down, exploits a powerful feedback loop through the visual system, and allows them to reflect from a distance for increased understanding. Journal assignments can range from basic ‘events of the day,’ to individualized assignments that tie into treatment goals.

Because technology is not available as a coping mechanism at Open Sky, students can address their underlying reasons for avoiding connection, feelings, or responsibilities as well as identify what needs they hope to meet through the behavior. Dr. William Glasser identified five Basic Human Needs; survival, love and belonging, power and control, freedom, and fun. In looking at this list, it is easy to see why technology would be addictive! It has the potential to meet many basic needs. My role as a therapist is to help students identify what need(s) technology is attempting to meet and mindfully evaluate if it is, in fact, meeting those need(s).

As humans, it’s easy to overlook the long-term impact of our behavior. Through their wilderness experience, students will learn to look at ALL behavior through two concepts often mentioned in therapy: mindfulness and intention. When a student evaluates their technology use with mindfulness and intention, they do so with greater awareness and are able to self-assess the short and long-term impact of their behavior. Just as students learn to make fire out of support, skill, and a few pieces of the earth, they also learn to make an internal ‘fire’ with support, skill, and a few pieces of awareness.

Our reality is that we live in a world of technology. My cell phone and tablet are within arm’s reach as I write this. We can use these devices to add to our lives in a positive manner or use them to escape from living a mindful and intentional life. It is a topic I look forward to continuing to assess and discuss with my husband as we navigate how we use it in our lives.

August 23rd, 2017

Kim Kelley, M.Ed., LPC | Clinical Therapist | Adolescent Girls Group