technology addictionJust a few years ago, it was mostly just kids and young adults who were obsessed with their smartphones and tablets, but today even grandma is texting, video chatting, planning vacations, shopping, and yelping (if she hasn’t watched South Park’s “Yelper Special” episode, anyway). Put simply, digital devices are omnipresent, and they’re here to stay.

Needless to say, addicts of all ages and predilections are in on this digital tsunami. For example, drug addicts text with dealers to set up their next buy; alcoholics have cases of wine delivered to the house; sex addicts feed their addiction with online porn, hookup apps, video chat, and the like; compulsive gamblers wager online in lieu of the casino and the track; and compulsive shoppers have unfettered access to the world’s biggest shopping malls – eBay and Amazon (plus a few others). In short, digital devices have greatly increased the affordability and accessibility of pretty much any addict’s “drug of choice,” whatever that substance or behavior happens to be.

Back in the day, I used to counsel a significant percentage of my clients – in particular sex and porn addicts – to get off the Internet completely, or to use the Internet only for work and to make sure their computer monitor was facing in a direction that others could see. And that advice was helpful at the time. However, as the Internet and related technologies have become more integral to our day-to-day lives, I find that suggestions like “online abstinence” are no longer viable. After all, today’s clients are texting and video chatting with their kids, keeping up with relatives and old friends on Facebook and other social media sites, making dinner reservations with Open Table, reading movie reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, catching rides via Uber and Lyft apps, etc. In other words, they rely on digital technologies for work, education, communication, socialization, and more.

In today’s world, addicts need their smartphones and their tablets and their laptops and all the other digital devices they are using. So my advice has changed. Rather than trying to eliminate or limit use of the Internet, I encourage them to incorporate technology into their recovery – using it as a sobriety tool much as they used it as an addiction tool.

For starters, addicts of all types can (and should) install “parental control” software on their digital devices. These products work in two ways. First, they can filter or block access to problematic websites, apps, and contacts. Second, they can provide an “accountability partner” with regular reports about when and how the addict is using digital technology (even providing screenshots of websites visited, images viewed, videos watched, etc.) I have written in-depth about protective software products on PsychCentral at this link.

NOTE: Protective software products are not guarantees of sobriety. Rather, they are tools of sobriety that can help an addict avoid addiction-related behaviors and interactions via filtering and blocking features while simultaneously rebuilding trust with loved ones, employers, and others via monitoring and reporting features.

I also advise my addicted clients to download sobriety related apps; there are literally hundreds of apps designed to calculate sobriety time, to provide basic information on addiction and recovery, and to locate nearby 12-step meetings. Most of these apps are either free or very inexpensive. For instance, I recently downloaded 12 Steps AA Companion to my iPhone for $2.99, getting a sobriety calculator, the basic text of the Big Book (the first 164 pages), more than 60 stories from early editions of the Big Book, a built-in dictionary, a search tool, a list of prayers and promises, and a useful recovery contacts feature. Pretty good, right? And there are LOTS of other apps with equally awesome features.

Just as importantly, I’ve been steering my addicted clients toward online recovery communities like In the Rooms. ITR is the world’s largest online social network for recovering people, with nearly 400,000 members. The site has discussion forums for just about every addiction and 12-step recovery group, along with daily meditations, speaker tapes, access to online meetings, and expert-facilitated webinars.

Since my primary expertise is with sex, porn, and love addiction I have actually agreed to serve as one of ITR’s expert facilitators. My goal in doing this is to introduce basic concepts about sex, porn, and love addiction to a wider audience – in particular people in recovery for substance abuse, eating disorders, and other addictions who may also be cross or co-addicted to sex/porn/love. In other words, I and the people who attend these webinars will be using technology to fight addiction.

If you are interested or have a client who might be interested, my weekly webinars will take place every Friday at 9 p.m. EST. To participate, people do need to be members of the ITR community. (It’s free and very easy to sign up.) Once there, you simply join the webinar. (You can do so anonymously if you’d like.) I will present some basic information each week, and then I will take questions. My plan is to make these highly informal sessions as interactive as possible.

Some initial discussion topics include:

  • What is the difference between being really horny and being a sex addict?
  • What is the relationship between sex/romance and substance abuse relapse?
  • Does recovery from sex addiction mean sexual abstinence?
  • What does it mean to be addicted to porn?
  • Where do women fit into this problem?
  • Do you think you might be involved with a sex addict?

In the future, I hope to expand my technological arsenal by using virtual reality as a sobriety tool – as a way to help addicts to “unlearn” problematic behavior patterns. See this terrific TEDx talk by Patrick Bordnick for an excellent explanation of how this works. (Essentially, it’s a really cool variation on role-play therapy, in which VR headsets are used to make role playing a more realistic and therefore more effective therapeutic tool.) For the moment, this approach is financially unviable on a wide scale. However, new and much more affordable VR tech is on the way.

My point with all of this is that active addicts almost always have a digital element that facilitates their addiction, so why should they not, when they enter recovery, find a digital element that supports their sobriety? Whether it’s via protective software, recovery apps, social communities like In the Rooms, or virtual reality, the more technological support that recovering addicts receive, the more likely they are to stay sober and to heal from their addiction (along with the underlying issues that drive it). So, in today’s world, the more technologically connected an addict is, the better off he or she will ultimately be.

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health, creating and overseeing addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities, including Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, The Ranch in rural Tennessee, and The Right Step in Texas. He is the author of several highly regarded books, including Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Love, and Porn Addiction, and Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men. For more information please visit his website at robertweissmsw.com or follow him on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW.