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Game Changers: Utilizing Wilderness Therapy to Treat Adolescent Gaming Disorder

Morgan Seymour, LCSW | Clinical Therapist | Adolescent Boys Group

Featured Team Members: Morgan Seymour, LCSW

As society changes and patterns of screened activities and video gaming evolve, researchers, helping professionals, and parents alike beg the question:

How much is too much?


The Research

The continued research into social, psychological, and biological implications of spending too much time in the virtual world is a significant and ongoing task. The findings are staggering.

A study published in the journal Preventative Medicine Reports compared children and adolescents who use screens for seven or more hours a day (“high users”) with those who use screens less than seven hours a day (“low users”). The study found that high users experience a noticeable increase in impulsivity, distractibility, and relationship struggles, and a decrease in self-worth and well-being. The study also found that for adolescents, high users are twice as likely than their low user counterparts to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety, and/or to be prescribed medication for emotional and behavioral issues.

In his book Disconnected: How to Reconnect our Digitally Distracted Kids, psychotherapist Tom Kersting writes that from 2003 to 2015, mental health diagnoses in teenagers increased by 52%. A correlation was found between increased screen use and anxiety, ADHD, and depression.

Researchers are beginning to identify that the continued increase in screen use results in the neural pruning of brain functions such as interpersonal skills and overcoming adversity or challenging life events. Neural pruning is a natural biological process that occurs into adolescence in which the brain eliminates neural pathways that aren’t often used. A recent study by Kuss and Griffiths reflects on internet and gaming addiction using neuroimaging techniques. From this neuroscientific perspective, it found that excessive internet usage is linked to mental health disorders such as OCD, depression, anxiety, and ADHD.

WHO Gaming Disorder Classification

The World Health Organization recently classified “gaming disorder” as a pattern of gaming behavior characterized by:

  • Impaired control over gaming
  • Increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities
  • Continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences

While some scientists and researchers continue to argue there isn’t enough evidence to support an official “gaming disorder” classification, it is important to consider the impact gaming has on individuals, especially adolescents.

In my experience as a wilderness therapist for adolescent boys, students who spend the majority of each day behind a screen struggle with interpersonal relationships, low school performance, avoidance of emotions, and other unhealthy behaviors. Wilderness therapy can be a highly effective intervention that can support students in addressing not only their gaming and screen time use but the important underlying issues associated with excessive use.

Digging Deeper

In my clinical work with students at Open Sky, I begin by asking a series of questions to better understand a student’s gaming patterns. These questions help me understand a student’s social environment, peer-to-peer interactions, familial relationships, school performance, and overall daily functioning. My conversations and therapy sessions help me determine if a student:

  • Turns to gaming to tune out difficult emotions or to avoid working through conflicts or challenges.
  • Avoids his school work (or other commitments) by being consumed in video games.
  • Prioritizes the gaming world over face-to-face connections and interactions.

I then dig deeper, examining these behaviors and the underlying issues that may lead a student to spend excessive time gaming, just as I would with an individual who struggles with substance abuse or self-harm, for example. I also want my students to uncover for themselves the “why?” surrounding these behaviors.

Whether the “why” is a result of his innate brain structure or is a learned coping mechanism, I create room for my students to explore and gain a greater sense of awareness about themselves. This is a crucial and beautiful step toward removing self-judgment, reflecting on one’s personal values, and initiating a process of change.

Many of my students who have spent excessive time gaming prior to Open Sky have developed connections to others in the online community. While I acknowledge that these feelings and connections are real for that student, it is important that I give him tools to navigate relationships in the non-virtual world. I also validate and address the anxiety that (for many of my students) can come with face-to-face connection and coach my students on healthy strategies to cope with these emotions.

This work may look like teaching the student 3-fold breathing techniques or Square breathing. These strategies help students regulate their emotions, slow down their thought process and respond to situations rather than react to them. This also helps my students to develop a greater mind-body connection so that they can identify and understand “warning signs” the body uses to signal when we are anxious, depressed, or emotionally charged.

It is important for students to practice breathing techniques and other evidenced-based wellness strategies—ways to regulate and begin to believe in themselves as they rewire parts of their brain and develop resiliency, improve confidence, and social competencies. By doing so, students are empowered to confront what may have been overwhelming in the past so that they may build healthier and more meaningful connections moving forward.

Open Sky students connecting

Why Wilderness Therapy?

Wilderness therapy also allows provides a rich and emotionally safe environment for students to navigate social interactions they would typically avoid. This provides a powerful backdrop to process and practice what they are learning.

At Open Sky, students do not have access to their phones, computers, or gaming devices. The inherent and profoundly important challenge of wilderness therapy is for students to work on interpersonal skills by engaging with their peers away from a screen; face to face. At times, this can be as simple as making eye contact while sitting by the fire. It could be a conversation about gaming, the role it plays in a student’s life and why it holds such importance. There are innumerable opportunities for students to build social and relational skills, practice assertive communication, and improve emotional awareness, expression, and connection.

Open Sky offers many opportunities for students to be challenged and supported while doing this important work.

CLICK HERE to here Morgan expand on this topic on the SKYlights Podcast.

Open Sky students outside

May 16th, 2019

Morgan Seymour, LCSW | Clinical Therapist | Adolescent Boys Group