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Reliant to Resilient: How Wilderness Treats Technology Addiction

Sebastiaan Zuidweg, MA, LPC | Assistant Clinical Director & Therapist

Technology is a prevalent part of our culture and society; we interact with screens nearly every day. When used mindfully, technology can offer many positive enhancements to our lives. Increased technology use, however, also has its drawbacks. It can be addictive, especially for adolescents and young adults, and used as an unhealthy means of escaping or disassociating from difficult emotions or experiences.   

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an environment where people are more vulnerable and at risk of mismanaging their media and technology use. Developmentally, adolescence and young adulthood is a time of identity formation and societal independence. While lockdowns, quarantines, and the closing of schools and pro-social programing was a necessary response, it is a direct threat to our youth’s developmental needs. At Open Sky, we have seen an increase in students who have struggled with isolation, media overuse, depression, and anxiety due to pandemic changes in our society. 

An Open Sky Wilderness Therapy student sits in a field of grass and looks off into the distance.

Signs of Overreliance on Technology 

For some of the students we treat at Open Sky, media overuse and its impact are profound. In most other cases, it is at the very least, an exacerbating behavior contributing to other mental health issues. We often see students who present with significant challenges in the realms of socialization, communication, distress tolerance, and resilience because their natural abilities to cope have atrophied due to excessive media and technology use. 

Technology addiction, like other use issues, stimulates our neurological systems in a way that reinforces a sense of wanting more. As the dopamine and serotonin receptors are activated, the stressors of the day, negative emotions, and responsibilities fall to the wayside. As a result, the behavior or addiction becomes reinforced as a useful yet unhealthy coping strategy. Some signs and behaviors that may indicate an overreliance on technology include: 

  • preoccupation or obsession with technology; 
  • an inability to stop using technology when desired; 
  • continued use of technology despite negative consequences, such as poor academic performance, diminished self-care, or strained connections with family and friends; 
  • turning to technology to escape problems or relieve negative emotions;  
  • and loss of interest in other hobbies and activities. 
Clinical director and therapist Sebastiaan Zuidweg speaks with an Open Sky Wilderness Therapy student wile sitting on log.

The Power of Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness is a powerful setting for addressing technology dependence and helping young people create a more mindful relationship with their screens and devices. Upon arrival, our students land in an environment where there is zero access to technology. They are immersed in a new setting where they are removed from their maladaptive coping strategies and global stressors, such as substances, technology, or family dynamics. 

At Open Sky, we aim to help students identify what need they are attempting to meet by using technology, evaluate if they are in fact meeting that need in a healthy way, and develop the skillset to engage in behaviors that align more closely with their core values. 

Increasing Awareness of Unhealthy Behaviors 

Living and learning outdoors offers students a chance to remove themselves from patterns and behaviors that may be keeping them stuck and cultivate a greater awareness of their internal environments. Because technology is not available as a coping mechanism at Open Sky, students begin to explore and understand the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that negatively impact them. At first, this can be an uncomfortable and challenging experience; however, building awareness around a negative behavior or belief is often the first step to changing it.  

An Open Sky Wilderness Therapy student writes in their journal while sitting on a rock in Utah.

Cultivating Healthy Coping Skills 

As students work with their therapists, guides, and peers, they start to understand their underlying reasons for avoiding connection, feelings, or responsibilities. They begin to learn healthy coping and centering skills to calm their bodies, minds, and spirits. Here are a few examples of tools we utilize at Open Sky and how they help students cultivate greater awareness: 

  • “I feel” statements help students identify their emotions and share them with others. They build understanding and connection between two or more people.   
  • The 4-line feelings check grounds students in the moment by identifying what they are experiencing in their bodies, minds, hearts, and souls. Instead of avoiding unpleasant feelings in the present moment, students learn to acknowledge and cope with them in healthy ways.  
  • Journaling is a positive coping skill that yields a great amount of spontaneous internal feedback. Putting words down on paper forces the student to slow down and allows them to reflect from a distance for increased understanding. Journal assignments we use at Open Sky can range from recording basic events of the day to individualized prompts that incorporate treatment goals.  
  • Yoga and meditation help students calm the nervous system, regulate emotions, focus on the present, connect to their bodies, and bring more awareness to sensations, thoughts, and feelings. 

Building Self-Confidence and Resiliency 

Time in nature can also build feelings of self-confidence and resiliency. Rather than relying on screens and apps, students learn to depend on themselves to meet their basic needs. They build fires and prepare healthy meals, carve spoons, layer appropriately to stay dry and warm, construct shelters, navigate trails, and collaborate with their team to accomplish goals. Learning these essential wilderness skills promotes feelings of self-efficacy and shows students how capable and resilient they are.  

Two Open Sky Wilderness Therapy students work together to bow drill a fire.

Our reality is that we live in a world of technology and it is necessary for many of our daily functions. At Open Sky we encourage students and families to evaluate their relationship with technology in a way that fosters more moderated and intentional media use in their lives. Students take moral inventories of how their media use has impacted their relationships, their social and school obligations, and their self-care and wellness. They explore the needs they were trying to meet through their behavior and work to identify healthier ways to meet those needs while honoring their personal and family values. Over time, students begin to see merit in their abilities to socialize, connect, and feel self-worth within the relationships they build with their peers, guides, therapists, and most importantly, their family and loved onesWhen they do so, they are better able to self-assess both the short and long-term impact of their behavior and make meaningful changes moving forward.   

August 10th, 2021

Sebastiaan Zuidweg, MA, LPC | Assistant Clinical Director & Therapist