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Working With Tech Addiction

We all have a relationship with technology. But how often do we get curious about this in the therapy room? As the pandemic intensifies tech use for many, addiction specialist Stefan Walters explains why today’s therapists need to be technologically aware, and suggests some useful questions for beginning to explore the nature of clients’, and our own, digital activity

 

The industry of mental health, like many others, is currently going through a huge transition, as practitioners who previously disavowed the efficacy of working remotely are quickly adapting to the pandemic. The result is that society is more reliant on technology than ever. At a time when physical distancing is the mandatory norm, many of us have turned to devices for a social fix, but this can quickly become a slippery slope, as we seek out ‘likes’ or comments to satisfy our primal psychobiological need for connection and stimulation. So how, in the age of Covid, do we work with the issue of tech addiction? How do we help our clients identify whether their use of technology serves a healthy purpose, or is a symptom of addiction?

I would posit that technology has become such an integral part of our lives that the generic concept of ‘screen time’ (once the feared nemesis of every parent) is now redundant. Instead, we must explore what technology is being used for, and to what end.

We need to ask all clients about their relationship to technology:

  • What is their felt sense when they think about technology, and how does this manifest physically, in their body?
  • Does it create a sense of emotional regulation, or dysregulation?
  • Is there a sense of agency when choosing to use technology, or has it become habitual, passive, or compulsive?
  • Do they feel that technology is something that complements their performance and wellbeing, or potentially detracts from it?

In other words, is technology a faithful servant, or a terrible master?

We can also ask about how technology presents itself in their daily lives. What devices do they use, and what is their attachment to these devices? There may be many different forms and facets, and we may not be familiar with every device, app or website our clients mention, but it does help if we can be technologically aware; curious enough to cultivate a vocabulary to speak about these issues in a way that feels fluid. The technological arena continues to develop at a dizzying pace and it may not be long until we are asking clients about biohacking or neurological implants.

For now, we can ask our clients whether they have any boundaries in place around technology: how much it is used, what for, and when. Do they have an online persona, or multiple personas? How does this differ from the in-person self? Are there certain parts or ego states which are inaccessible in real life, and what emotions do these parts activate, or represent? Tech addiction itself may sometimes be a secondary addiction, where technology simply serves as the gateway to a primary addiction, such as gambling, or porn. And many ‘real world’ addictions which may seemingly have disappeared may in fact simply have moved online; often much easier to keep secret behind the locked screen of a smartphone.

We should also explore our own use of technology with care:

  • What is our own digital presence or footprint?
  • Are we still able to be a ‘blank slate’ with our clients if we can be found online?
  • How do we market ourselves effectively or have our own digital life, without it potentially impacting our relationships in future?

These might all be ongoing issues to explore in supervision. Technology today plays a major role in all of our lives whether we like or not, and it is not going away anytime soon. It must therefore be continually acknowledged and explored as an active and crucial part of the therapeutic process.

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Stefan Walters

Stefan Walters is a mental health and performance expert based in London. He was a clinical lead for addictions in the NHS, and has worked in private practice on Harley Street for the past decade. He has taught workshops worldwide, spoken at international conferences, been published in The Guardian, The Sunday Times, FHM, Esquire, Men’s Health, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Huffington Post, and appeared on the BBC.

Prior to his career in mental health, Stefan worked in the music industry, in International Promotions, A&R, and management. Stefan specialises in issues of performance, attachment and intimacy, complex traumatic stress and addiction / compulsivity; issues that are often rooted in unresolved trauma.  He is a graduate member of the British Psychological Society (BPS), a member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), the Association for Family Therapy (AFT), the British Emotionally Focused Therapy (BEFT) Centre, and Brainspotting UK.

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