The reason I wanted to chat with Jason Calder, LMFT, CMHC is that Outback Therapeutic Expeditions has a new “Unplugged” track in their wilderness therapy program. Launched this past Spring, this is the second time in recent months that treatment for video game or internet-addicted teens have been added to programming. Many of us have heard people talk about their smartphone in the same way other people speak about drugs. It appears that technology overuse is a growing issue in our communities.
Jason, thank you for talking with me about creating this specific program. I was reading about reStart (http://www.netaddictionrecovery.com) and would love to know why you chose to work with them and Dr. Ryan Anderson, Ph.D., LMFT, MedFT, a research clinician at Telos to put the “Unplugged” program together. What informed your choice?
We decided, if we’re going to do this, let’s do it right. ReStart is one of the only inpatient programs in the country specifically designed to treat problematic digital media use. They’ve learned a lot in the past 6 years about what works & what doesn’t. We wanted to benefit from that learning curve. They’re also very skilled in effective program design so we utilized a lot of their consultation in how we structured the Unplugged program. Dr. Anderson at Telos has specialized in this process addiction for many years yet he also intimately understands the unique dynamics of wilderness therapy. He’s helped us to more effectively harness the power of nature coupled with the science of evidence-based assessment and treatment for this specific addiction.
What led Outback to add this specific track? Students who struggle with addictive behaviors to electronics is not a new concept in wilderness therapy or residential treatment for that matter. Why do you think a specialized track is needed? Are the students grouped as unplugged or are they mixed?
Since 2001 I’ve spent the bulk of my career treating clients who struggle with internet and video game overuse. After I joined Outback we discussed how little support there is available for families whose lives have been impacted by this issue & felt strongly that we should build this program. The students in Unplugged are grouped separately from our other clients. We feel this is crucial. When in a mixed group the other clients often minimize this addiction with comments such as “You’re here because you played too many video games? That’s not a REAL addiction!”
We’ve intentionally created a peer culture where the students are encouraged to speak openly about the genuine damage tech abuse has caused to their families, friendships, with their hobbies and schooling. We use cutting edge evidence-based approaches to treat the addiction & any underlying psychological issues, a full curriculum of assignments & book readings developed specifically for the student, a comprehensive workbook for Unplugged parents, and we offer weekly parent coaching provided by author (of Video Games And Your Kids) and expert Kim McDaniel. Everything we do in this program is very intentional.
What has surprised you the most since launching this program?
I think what has surprised me the most is how many students have been able to eventually acknowledge how much their video games or internet use has taken over their lives. We don’t usually see this level of honesty with substance abusers for quite some time. It’s been refreshing. This early recognition tends to lead to better results over time..
What professional conferences have you attended to get this going?
I’ve spoken at two conferences in the past six months on the neurological impacts of overusing the internet, social media & video games. They were both received very well. But the conference I enjoyed the most this year was at the National Academy of Sciences in October. The conference was all about digital media and it’s effects on the developing mind. Some of the most preeminent researchers and authors in the world on technology issues were there. After two days of incredible panel presentations we broke into small groups and discussed what research is still needed to support families and shift public policy. Some examples included the need for effective assessment tools to better separate normal use from pathological use and the need to create reliable diagnostic criteria for Internet Gaming Disorder so that it can become a legitimate and helpful diagnosis. As a result of that conference we now have updated research goals and the funding to meet those goals.
How do you feel about what is happening in South Korea?
I applaud them. Their prevalence rates are some of the highest in the world, so the government has acted swiftly to help individuals find great balance in their lives. They actually cover the cost of treatment for technology-saturated teens. Dr. Koh Young-Sam oversees South Korea’s 500 or so programs & happened to be at the digital media conference last month. I was able to speak with him about the methods they’ve found helpful and how they track their outcomes. I was impressed to learn more about how well they’ve approached treatment with scientifically-based methods. We see the same thing in Germany, England, and many other countries. Meanwhile, here in the US, we are still debating over what to call this problem! Unfortunately, that means that many families won’t be getting the support they need until policy makers can find some consensus around this issue.
I had a client that I placed in a treatment program over 7 years ago whose parents used to unplug the internet from outside the house to get their son offline. They would tell him, “Oh well, internet went down again.” He was obsessed with playing the massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs).
Can you talk a little bit about the way the brain is activated with video game play? I was told once that multiplayer games activate the same part of the brain that cocaine does.
Sure. When video game addicts are shown images that cause them to “crave” video games, their brains light up in the same way that drug-addicted brains do. The reward centers in their brains look exactly the same. In addition, research shows that excessive video game and internet use shrink the processing areas of the brain, decrease the brain’s connection pathways, reduces thickness in our higher brain areas (memory, planning, etc.), and can lead to more impulsive but less accurate cognitive processing. The findings are pretty alarming!
What are the trends? What is changing?
One of the things that is changing is that we are slowly starting to see a few programs emerge to treat technology-addicted youth. At the digital media conference many of the experts there told me that we are the only inpatient program in the US that they know of that was specifically designed to treat Internet Gaming Disorder for teenagers. And reStart is known as one of the only inpatient programs to treat young adults with these issues. But it’s a shame that parents don’t have more support and more resources throughout the country. I’m hoping this will shift over time.
Are there any final comments you would like to add?
The only other thing I would add is that I truly believe that wilderness therapy is able to provide the most successful detox possible for clients. For example, we have a permit for over 900 square miles of high desert country in which our clients learn self-sufficiency, responsibility, and personal empowerment all while being more than 45 miles from the nearest electrical outlet! This gives them time to develop a healthy sleep cycle, daily exercise, practice eating healthy foods, and to ultimately rewire healthy neural pathways in the brain so they’re more likely to carry these patterns into their future. It’s incredibly difficult to accomplish all of those things with a computer 30 feet away. It’s really exciting to see the powerful changes in our clients and how they actually end up learning to like themselves! These are the things that make my job so rewarding and get me excited to go into work each day!
About the AuthorJason Calder, LMFT, CMHC is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a Clinical Mental Health Counselor. He graduated from Brigham Young University (2000) with a BS in Marriage, Family and Human Development. Jason’s MS is from Indiana State University (2003) in Marriage and Family Therapy.He is currently the Clinical Director at Outback Therapeutic Expeditions and also runs their Unplugged program. Since 2001 he has worked in a variety of settings including, community mental health, residential treatment, therapeutic boarding schools, and has operated a successful private practice. Mr. Calder has spoken at professional conferences around the country on topics that range from technology abuse to experiential therapy to specialized treatments for Autism Spectrum Disorders.